During the day, Florida beaches are filled with sunbathers and lined with hotels.
But at night, wild creatures weighing hundreds of pounds lumber out of the sea and onto the sands in an ancient ritual – sea turtles laying their eggs.
Visitors are often surprised to learn that more than 100,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles nest on Florida beaches in June and July. What’s even better? You can see it happen in person.
Up and down the Atlantic coast (where sea turtle nests are most common), parks and environmental groups organize nighttime sea turtle walks in June and July.
Getting a chance to see a sea turtle in action takes some planning, but those who’ve done it say it's a memorable experience.
On a typical turtle tour, visitors are led to a spot on the beach where a sea turtle is digging a hole a foot or two deep with her hind flippers. The turtle then starts filling the nest with soft-shelled eggs the size of table tennis balls. After laying her eggs, she refills the nest with sand and heads back into the ocean. The whole process takes 30 to 60 minutes.
On turtle walks, a hushed circle of humans is witness to the spectacle. Two months later, the eggs hatch and scores of tiny turtles emerge from the sand at night and clamber into the water.
Florida’s most common variety of sea turtle is the loggerhead, which averages 200 to 250 pounds. Larger leatherbacks and green turtles nest here in smaller numbers, but turtle walk participants are not allowed to watch them lay eggs because leatherbacks and greens are endangered and the presence of people might be disturb the nesting, according to Rebecca Mott, education manager at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach.
To see a nesting turtle, you must go with a group: Turtle walk guides know the federal and state laws about what is and isn’t permissible. For example: No flashlights, (except for guides, who must have permits) and no flash photography are allowed.
All sea-turtle walks require advance reservations. Several of the most popular sea-turtle walk locations are away from urban centers, so a turtle walk might make a good anchor for a weekend getaway or beach vacation.
Here are some quick tips about sea-turtle walks:
● You'll be with a group of 20 or 40 people. All sea-turtle walk programs are required to begin with an information session or talk. During that time, most programs send out scouts to find nesting sea turtles for the group to observe.
● Participants have to be able to walk a mile or two on sand.
● Bring insect repellent, a water bottle and patience. No matter where you go, there's no guarantee you'll see a sea turtle.
● Most turtle walk tours don’t accept children under age 8. (One accepts children as young as 6.)
● Most turtle walks charge a fee, some as much as $20 per person. There are a few free programs, and they fill up fast.
Should you book a turtle walk during certain tides or phases of the moon? Mott of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center said it doesn’t matter.
“It’s like a woman in labor,” she said. “You never know when she’s going to go into labor, and once she does, it doesn’t matter if the moon is full or it’s high tide or not.”
There are some beaches where the odds of catching a turtle in the act of laying eggs are better than others, however. Juno Beach, where Mott leads turtle walks, has the highest density of loggerhead nests in the United States and the second highest in the world. Last year, which was a record year for turtle nesting, 90 percent of the Juno Beach walks saw eggs being laid. In past years, Mott said, the average was 80 to 85 percent.
Down the coast in Boca Raton, turtle walks at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center got lucky 75 percent of the time during the record 2012 year – much better than in previous years.
But there is no guarantee and no indication how a season will develop. You can sign up for a walk and wait for hours and see nothing but moonlight and waves.
Those who are fortunate to witness turtle nesting often tell Mott how much it meant to them.
“It’s a magical experience,” Mott said. “I know that sounds cheesy, but it is really special. People say it’s been on their bucket list and they bring their kids.”
Here’s where and when folks can see turtles nesting in Florida:
● 6503 N. Ocean Dr., Dania Beach, 954-923-2833
● Evenings every Wednesday and Friday in June and July
The park entrance fee is $4 for a single car occupant and $6 for two to eight in a car; the Turtle Awareness Program is free after paying park admission. Reservations are required for the turtle walk. Participants meet at a pavilion for a 20-minute ranger talk and Q&A. During the program, a scout looks for a nesting sea turtle to be observed. Group reservations may be made by calling 954-924-3859.
● 401 SW 2nd St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-713-0930
● At 9 p.m. on June 3- 5, 10-12, 17-18, 25-26, and July 1- 3, 8- 10, 15-16
● Cost is $20 for non-members
This walk begins at the museum with a talk about turtles, including a chance to meet the museum's ambassador loggerhead sea turtle, who lives at the museum. Then guests use their own transportation to meet at the beach for the walk. Advance reservations are required.
● 1801 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton, 561-338-1473
● 9 p.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in June and July 2-3 and 9- 11
● Cost is $17 per person
Because members can sign up in advance, some turtle walks sell out immediately. The program begins in the Gumbo Limbo classroom and ends by 11 p.m. on the beach. Children must be 8 years of age or older and adults must participate with children and teens under 18. Tickets must be purchased in person and there is a limit of six tickets per person.
Gumbo Limbo also offers another opportunity to see sea turtles. The nature center allows visitors to watch tiny sea turtle hatchlings scramble into the surf as they are released to make it on their own in the ocean. The 90-minute program, which is open to even the youngest kids, begins in the Gumbo Limbo classroom and ends on the beach.
● Sea turtle hatchling releases take place at 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday from July 22 to Aug. 15 and 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday from Aug. 19 to Sept. 12 (there is no program on Labor Day, Sept. 2)
● General ticket sales begin July 20; tickets must be purchased in person; there is a limit of six tickets per person
● 10900 State Road 703 (A1A), North Palm Beach, 561-624-6952
● 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday starting in June and continuing through July 19 (no program July 4)
● Cost is $5 per person
Young children are not encouraged to attend. No flashlights or flash photography permitted. Reservations are required. You can only make reservations for eight people per walk.
● 14200 U.S. Highway 1, Loggerhead Park, Juno Beach, 561-627-8280
· 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday in June and July
● Tickets are $17 in advance, $12 for LMC members (walk-ins are $20, and a spot is not guaranteed)
Walks begin at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center with an informative presentation and a visit with some of the patients in the outdoor turtle yard. Turtle walks can last until midnight. Pre-registration can be done online.
● 13640 S.E. Federal Highway (U.S. 1), Hobe Sound, 772-546-2067
● 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday through July 25
● Cost is $5 per person
Walks go on rain or shine and could last till midnight or later, depending on nesting activity. Make reservations online or by phone.
● 6501 S. Ocean Drive, Highway A1A, Gate B, Jensen Beach, 800-334-5483
● 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday in June and July
These walks are free and are limited to 50 people. Walks tend to fill up immediately. Reservations are required.
● 14251 N. State Road A1A, Vero Beach, 772-388-2750
● Every night but Wednesday and Thursday in June and July (no walk July 4)
Reservations required; reservations for the month of July will be taken starting at 10 a.m. June 15. Programs are conducted by state park rangers and begin with a presentation. Participants must be in fair physical condition and able to walk up to three miles.
● 8385 S. Highway A1A, Melbourne Beach, 321-723-3556
● 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday June 3 through Aug. 2
● Cost is $15 per person; space is limited; reservations required
Walks are presented through the Sea Turtle Conservancy and take place in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, the largest nesting habitat for loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. It has more endangered green sea turtle nests than any other place in North America. The world’s largest sea turtle, the endangered leatherback, also nests here. Reservations can be made by calling or by going online.
Sea Turtle Preservation Society
● 111 S. Miramar Ave., Indialantic, 321-676-1701
● Cost is $10 minimum donation per person
This private group holds turtle walks in Melbourne Beach or Satellite Beach in June and July and provides location information when you make your reservation, which must be done by phone or in person. Children under 6 are discouraged and participants must be able to walk a mile on soft sand. Office hours are 11 a.m.to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
● 308 Julia St., Titusville, 386-428-3384
● Dates in June and July to be determined
● Reservations for June are open now, reservations for July dates start June 15; walks fill up, so have several dates in mind when you call
● Cost is $14 per person; free for children 15 and younger
The park is the longest undeveloped stretch of beach on Florida's east coast. Turtle walks take place in both the North District (Apollo Beach and New Smyrna Beach) and South District (Playalinda Beach and Titusville). Reservations are required and can be made by phone.
See sea turtles every day
You can get close to a threatened or endangered sea turtle species any day of the year with a tour of The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, a non-profit rehabilitation center in the Florida Keys that rehabilitates sick and injured turtles and provides tours that allow people to see sea turtles up close. The hospital is located at 2396 Overseas Highway at mile marker 48.5 on the bay side. The phone number is 305-743-2552.