We vacationers aren’t the only ones who flock to the beach in the summer. Sea turtles of egg-laying age, recalling their own brief childhoods on the sand, return to their early homes to build nests when the weather heats up.
About two months later, lucky viewers can watch swarms of hatchling sea turtles rush along the beach toward the ocean, safety, and a long life at sea, navigating by the moonlight and the downward slope of the sand. Someday, years from now, they may return to the very same spot to make their own nests.
If you’re smitten with sea turtles, here are a few of the top spots to watch the hatchlings start their journeys. Depending on the location, hatching season can vary; according to Sea Turtle Trackers Inc., hatching season stretches from April through October, but it’s best to contact the organizations listed below for site-specific predictions.
1. Fernandina Beach, Florida
Just off the northeast Florida coast, you’ll find a charming barrier landmass called Amelia Island. With 13 miles of beaches, the island offers plenty of options for kicking back and relaxing, but there’s also the unique option of becoming involved with the baby sea turtle hatching process on the island’s Fernandina Beach.
The Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch (AISTW) is a conservation organization that conducts all nesting and evacuation tours for the beaches on the island. While AISTW makes it clear just how difficult it can be to catch the baby turtles in the act of hatching and making their way to the water, you can watch volunteers “excavate” a nest after the hatch. This inventory of egg shells, unhatched eggs, and maybe even live baby turtles who were late to the party is exceptional in its own right.
2. Atlantis, Paradise Island, The Bahamas
The Atlantis resort on Paradise Island is just that -- a true paradise. This tropical resort is home to the world’s largest open-air marine habitat, employs over 100 marine biologists, and offers a variety of marine animal activities. Two of the most memorable experiences available are the Sea Turtle Swim and Hatchling Release.
The first option includes taking a boat out to the turtle release point, where you snorkel alongside a recently released sea turtle. You get to name your turtle, pose with the animal for an unforgettable photo op, and take home an official certificate at the end of the experience. Or you can choose to help release a baby sea turtle on the beach under the moonlight.
Proceeds from both of these activities go toward conservation group The Blue Project. While the resort’s water park, restaurants, and casino can be enjoyed by those staying elsewhere, the Sea Turtle Swim and Hatchling Release are reserved for guests who are checked in at Atlantis. Space is very limited, so be sure to contact the resort about your desire to participate as soon as possible.
3. Boca Raton, Florida
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center can be found on the southeast shore of Florida in Boca Raton. This nature center is dedicated to the conservation, research, and rehabilitation of sea turtles and offers a range of turtle-centric activities.
Take the Turtle Walk for a decent chance at spotting a sea turtle building a nest. Or sign up for a Hatchling Release. While it may not involve hundreds of baby turtles dodging seagulls, it’s at least a sure chance to see an adorable animal make its way to the ocean.
4. Juno Beach, Florida
Also along the southeast shore of Florida is the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, which strives to research and preserve sea turtles. Here you’ll find a variety of options to learn about the lives of these fascinating animals -- and to get hands-on experience with their egg-laying, hatching, and release cycles.
There’s a guided walk to learn about (and hopefully witness) a female turtle in the process of nesting and laying eggs. You can also choose to help with the excavation of a nest, or check out the after-hours experience of releasing hatchlings into the ocean.
5. Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Communities on the Pacific shorelines of Mexico play an integral part in sea turtle conservation. Each year, thousands of turtles come ashore to nest, leading to thousands of baby hatchlings. While Puerto Vallarta is one of the most popular resort destinations for tourists, it also has one of the most advanced sea turtle protection programs in the world.
Organizations like the Campamento Tortuguero Boca de Tomates allow visitors to witness hatchling releases. You can also check with local hotels to see if they participate in turtle releases.
6. Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
Located just off Texas’s Gulf Shore, not far from Corpus Christi, Padre Island National Seashore is home to a diverse group of sea turtles. There are five different species of sea turtles found in the Gulf, and all five use Padre Island and its surrounding waters for feeding and nesting.
The only sea turtle research branch of the U.S. National Park Service is found here, and the team specializes in recovery, rehabilitation, and protection of these creatures. They also offer public viewings of hatchling releases.
7. Bald Head Island, North Carolina
Off the southern tip of North Carolina, you’ll find Bald Head Island. Here the Bald Head Island Conservancy is helping protect the habitat and lives of the area’s turtles. They offer nest excavation experiences free of charge a couple of days after hatching where handlers will determine how many turtles hatched and assist any unhatched stragglers on their way. Additional educational programs are available including an overnight nest patrol ride-along that is limited to two participants per night. Costs for this and other programs can be found on their site.
8. Jekyll Island, Georgia
The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, located on Jekyll Island, is the state’s only sea turtle rehabilitation facility. In addition to offering insightful environmental education to the public, visitors can also experience turtle walks, beach patrol rides, and nest excavations.
Regardless of where you go to see sea turtles hatching, there will always be an element of chance. This is a natural process, after all, and the turtles themselves aren’t checking their calendars. However, even the sight of one or two of these cute, defenseless little buddies toddling across the beach during a controlled release is enough to change the way you think about the natural world -- and our relationship with it. It’s worth it.