Imagine strolling along the beach, minding your own business. You turn to look at dunes and boom, you fall headfirst into a giant sinkhole. Because you’ve been downing sun-brewed “craft tea” all day, digging your way out with the arms and legs god gave you is out of the question. You’re stuck, no one’s around, and you feel embarrassed.

Suddenly, you hear voices above. You stop trying to eat your way out just in time to hear directions being given, shovels being dug, and legs being pulled— yours. This is how it feels to be a sea turtle when local volunteers are on the prowl.

Coastal Lifestyle Magazine recently sat down with Sharon Maxwell, the Director of one such group of locals. As her organization, South Walton Turtle Watch, prepares for the nesting season, Ms. Maxwell has some useful tips on making sure you, and the turtles, never wind up in a hole.

Coastal Lifestyle Magazine: Tell us about your organization.
Sharon Maxwell: Based in South Walton County, FL, the South Walton Turtle Watch is a dedicated volunteer group that holds a Federal Wildlife Commission sea turtle permit from the State of Florida. We come from all walks of life, and each volunteer must live in our coverage area and walk the beach at least once a week.

CLM: Describe “walking the beach.”
SM: Our group walks the beach every morning at daybreak looking for sea turtle tracks and nests so we can mark them and keep them safe. We also protect sea turtle nesting habitats by ensuring all lights shining onto the beach are off or are pointed down.

CLM: Why is that important?
SM: Only red light emitting flashlights are allowed on the beach from sunset to sunrise. Artificial light and light from bonfires can be seen for long distances, disorienting adult sea turtles and hatchlings.

CLM: What else can we do to help these wonderful critters?
SM: Make sure all personal items, such as beach chairs, coolers, tents, and everything else are taken off the beach at night. Be mindful that we share the beach with these threatened and endangered sea turtles. Our beach is where adult females were born and the only place sea turtles have to nest. A safe and uncluttered place is critical for them to nest. Sharing the beach with them is our privilege and responsibility.

CLM: When should we pay attention to these guidelines?
SM: Statewide, sea turtle nesting season runs from May 1st - October 31st, each year. In our area, nesting begins around the middle of May and ends about the middle of August. Hatching begins around mid-June and runs until the end of October.

CLM: Tell us what kinds of turtles you see on our beaches each year.
SM: In this area, we have four of the five sea turtle breeds in Florida nesting on our beaches. Our most frequent nesters are Loggerheads, followed by Greens, Kemp Ridleys, and Leatherbacks. They nest at night and are very secretive.

CLM: I can relate to that! These are great tips, Sharon. What else should we know?
SM: If the female turtles are disturbed, they become frightened and will abandon nesting. Please, if you ever see one, do not approach it. Always stay behind and away from her view so she feels safe and continues her nesting attempt. Never take flash photos or shine lights at a sea turtle.

CLM: Let’s give our readers the bullet points on how to make our beaches a welcoming environment.
SM: Here’s how to help them:
• Take your personal belongings all the way off the beach at night.
• Fill in any holes you and your kids have dug. We’ve seen sea turtles fall into holes and almost die.
• Turn off all lights that shine onto the beach.
• Use only a red light emitting flashlight after sunset.
• Stay well away from any sea turtle you see.
• Please do NOT have a bonfire during May through October. Bonfires are permitted in Walton County, though not in other counties, but the South Walton Turtle Watch encourages individuals to have them before or after the nesting season.
• Events, such as weddings, should be held before dark. And do not use tiki torches on the beach at night.

By following these simple guidelines, you’ll join a select group of people who care. To volunteer, donate, and learn more about helping us protect these endangered animals, please visit: southwaltonturtlewatch.org

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