The Remarkable Journey of a Loggerhead Sea Turtle

The southeastern U.S. represents one of the most important nesting areas of loggerhead sea turtles in the world. But very few people realize just how far loggerheads will travel before they return to these beaches to nest. Join us as we travel along the life stages of a loggerhead sea turtle and find out how you can help make their journey successful.

Nesting — Incubation Begins

Between May and October, a nursery is developing on the beaches along our southeastern shoreline. In a silent ritual that has gone on for millions of years, female loggerhead sea turtles come ashore at night to nest on open beaches.

By the time a loggerhead comes to shore for the first time, she has spent about 30 years at sea. With her powerful flippers, she excavates an egg chamber in the sand, deposits a clutch of approximately 100 to 120 eggs, and then covers the pit with sand before immediately returning to the dark ocean.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Nesting loggerhead sea turtle by Matthew Godfrey.
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Left: Loggerhead sea turtle tracks by Keenan Adams/USFWS || Right: A loggerhead turtle lays her eggs in a nest on the beach at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina by Sarah Dawsey /USFWS.

Like all sea turtles, loggerheads are easily disturbed by human activity and artificial lights when they come ashore to nest. Eggs face a number of risks. Nests may be flooded by tides on low-lying and eroding beaches, which can cause heavy mortality.

Eggs can get crushed by vehicles or construction on the beach or consumed when a predator, such as a raccoon, fox, or stray dog, raids the nest. In some parts of the world, sea turtle eggs are considered a delicacy and nests are raided for human consumption.

Thousands of people — including many volunteers — patrol our southeastern beaches during loggerhead nesting season. On wildlife refuges, parks, and private lands, they count the turtle tracks every morning to collect information on the numbers of nests that are laid each season. They take steps to ensure the incubating nests will remain undisturbed. These conservation actions get loggerhead hatchlings off to a good start and monitor the conservation success of this at-risk population.

  • Remove recreational equipment such as lounge chairs from the beach at night.
  • If you dig a hole in the sand, be sure to fill it back up.
  • If you encounter a turtle trying to nest, be quiet, avoid sudden movements, and keep your distance.
  • If you are 18 or older and live near a beach, consider volunteering to patrol and protect sea turtles in your area!
  • Check out some additional ideas for things you can do to help sea turtles.

Hatchlings Emerge — First Steps to the Sea

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Loggerhead hatchling by Jackie Orsulak/USFWS.

After a minimum of 7 weeks, depending on the temperature of the sand, the loggerhead hatchlings emerge from their nest in a large group, a process known as a boil. Each hatchling is less than 2 inches long and weighs approximately one ounce. As soon as they emerge, the hatchlings make their way across the sand to the ocean, moving toward the brightest and most open horizon. In natural conditions, this is always over the ocean.

Building and street lights along our shorelines can easily confuse hatchlings, causing them to head inland instead of toward the ocean. Disturbance such as objects or trash on beaches can get in the way, preventing hatchlings from safely reaching the ocean. Until they’re in the water, hatchlings are at great risk of being eaten by predators, such as seabirds and raccoons.

Image for post
Image for post
Loggerhead sea turtles in North Carolina by Dawn Childs/USGS.

A steadily growing number of private landowners and businesses along the coastline are helping sea turtles, for example, by installing sea turtle appropriate lighting to prevent the emerging hatchlings from becoming disoriented.

  • Help minimize beachfront lighting, including closing blinds and draperies in rooms facing the ocean to prevent indoor lighting from reaching the beach.
  • Don’t build campfires on the beach during nesting season, as sea turtle hatchlings are attracted to the light and may crawl into the fire and die.
  • Remove recreational equipment such as lounge chairs from the beach at night, and if you dig a hole in the sand, be sure to fill it back up.
  • Don’t litter and — better yet — pick up and dispose plastic bags, wrappers, balloons, and other garbage you find on the beach, and inspire your friends and family to do the same!
Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Loggerhead sea turtle photo by Becky Skiba/USFWS

Young Loggerheads — Long-distance Drifters

Once our loggerhead hatchlings reach the sea, they embark on an epic journey that can eventually lead them across the entire Atlantic Ocean. Drifting in free-floating sargassum (seagrass) mats, they find habitat, shelter, food, and a means of long-distance transportation. In these sargassum mats, the young loggerheads passively drift along with the ocean’s currents, often ending up in feeding grounds in the Azores or the Mediterranean more than 3,000 miles away.

Image for post
Image for post
Credit: Kenneth Lohmann, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Map: Approximate migratory route of Florida loggerheads around the Sargasso Sea. The migratory pathway coincides with the warm-water current system known as the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.

Plastic pollution is a big problem in our oceans, with more than 8 million metric tons of plastic leaking into our oceans every year. Juvenile oceanic-stage sea turtles are particularly at risk from this. Discarded plastic bags and released balloons are some of the items that find their way into rivers and streams and are eventually carried out to sea, where they are all-too-often ingested by sea turtles.

Image for post
Image for post
Marine debris/plastic pollution. Credit: Alnitak Marine Research and Education.

Even microplastics can be a problem when they are ingested along with natural prey. Entanglement in abandoned (“ghost”) fishing gear and in other marine debris is also a major threat, as it can prevent sea turtles from swimming to the surface for air.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Left: Sea turtle with cables. Photo by Alnitak Marine Research and Education || Right: More than 100 balloons collected at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey by USFWS.

People and entire communities are increasingly aware of the dangers of plastic pollution and marine debris to the survival of sea turtles and other marine life. Many beachfront restaurants and hotels are reducing single-use plastics at weddings and other functions and are helping to raise awareness about sea turtles in the process.

Globally, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is engaging individuals, civil society groups, industry, and governments as part of its #CleanSeas campaign to address the root cause of marine litter by targeting the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastic.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Trash-talking turtle on display at Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. by Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program.

As an individual, you can do many things to prevent plastic pollution and marine debris. Some easy first steps?

  • Don’t release balloons, and help raise awareness among your friends and family about the risks of releasing balloons to wildlife.
  • Say no to plastic straws in restaurants and at home.
  • Remember to take reusable bags with you when shopping.
  • Use a refillable bottle instead of buying bottled water.
  • Consider bringing your own containers when you get take-out.
  • Make informed purchasing choices if you have the option, choosing products with no or less packaging and without microbeads.
  • Be sure to properly discard fishing equipment and other things (including six-pack rings) that can entrap sea turtles and other marine life and cause them to drown.

Growing Up — Foraging in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean

For up to 15 years, loggerheads hatched on our southeastern beaches will stay in the open ocean, feeding in foraging grounds in the North Atlantic and western Mediterranean.

The largest human-induced threat to loggerheads during this life stage is accidental capture, also referred to as by-catch, from industrial and small-scale fisheries. As mentioned above, entanglement in abandoned fishing gear and marine debris and ingestion of plastic continues to be a threat.

The U.S. Congress has mandated support of international marine turtle conservation on behalf of the American people. Through its Marine Turtle Conservation Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supports projects that are working with Spanish and Portuguese fisheries to address by-catch issues affecting loggerheads hatched on southeastern U.S. nesting beaches.

Image for post
Image for post
Trained marine biologists and volunteers with our non-governmental partner Altinak work to conduct research and with the fishing industry to reduce incidental catch of sea turtles by Altinak Marine Research and Education.
Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Coast Guard helps rescue loggerhead sea turtle by Matt Strucic/U.S. Coast Guard.

One easy thing you can do to help these international conservation efforts is to purchase the Save Vanishing Species stamp (also known as the “Tiger Stamp”) for all of your first class stamp postal needs. A portion of proceeds from the sale of this stamp goes directly to support to sea turtles and other species through the Multinational Species Conservation Funds. The projects working to address sea turtle by-catch mentioned above have all been supported by this stamp.

Image for post
Image for post
http://www.tigerstamp.com/

Returning to Shore — Completing the Cycle

Once loggerhead females reach maturity, they use the Earth’s magnetic field and other cues to return to the area where they were hatched. Along the way, many bask in the warm surface waters and rest among rocky reef ledges in marine protected areas like Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Georgia, which is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Image for post
Image for post
Loggerhead sea turtles after a long ocean voyage. In the open ocean, sea turtles attract a miniature ecosystem on their shell, acting like a small oasis for marine life in the vast oceans. Photo by Alnitak Marine Research and Education.

By the time they are ready to come ashore for nesting, they each weigh up to 200–250 pounds, and would certainly have quite a story to tell about their long-distance journey from hatchling to maturity.

Together with our partners along U.S. coastlines, at sea, and internationally, we are committed to doing our part to make sure their story continues. Thank you for doing your part to help.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Left: Loggerhead sea turtle at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary by GP Schmahl/NOAA. || Right: Loggerhead tracks and sunrise at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge by Keenan Adams / USFWS

By Heidi Ruffler, International Affairs Program

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store