Beach erosion poses large obstacle for sea turtles

By Susannah Hayward |

Susannah Hayward WebIf you’ve been out to St. Augustine or Vilano Beach lately, then you’ve seen the drop off. A cliff of sand has formed due to the compression of sand from both foot and vehicle traffic, cutting the tide off from the upper dunes, and giving runners, bikers and tourists a bit of an obstacle on their way to the water.

Although the barrier creates a minor inconvenience for us, it might spell more of a disaster for the local sea turtles that nest on our beaches. The sudden incline prevents the tide from coming in as high as it potentially could, and it does the same for the sea turtles that were born on and have been nesting on those beaches their entire lives.

Every time I visit the beach, I take advantage of the wall that separates high tide from my beach chair. I never have to worry about moving back in order to keep my towel or Bluetooth speaker from getting wet in the rising waves. I never thought about the implications of the increasing height of the drop off until a few months ago, I witnessed a loggerhead sea turtle pushing herself out of the waves to find refuge on the St. Augustine Beach. She moved deliberately, taking a breath with each push of her flipper. She was bigger than I am, and I stood watching in awe as she slowly made her way up the beach. I left soon out of fear of disturbing her journey, but as soon as I struggled over the steep incline, I started wondering about how a sea turtle twice my size that spends, at most, 8 nights a year on land, would manage to haul her massive weight over such a steep wall of sand.

I returned to the beach the next day, long after the daily sea turtle patrol had marked off the nests from the night before. New nests had been blocked off farther down the beach after the incline had gradually lessened to a more gradual, natural slope. No new progress where I’d seen the turtle beach herself the night before. It’s likely the wall had stopped her in her tracks, forcing her to build her nest within reach of the waves at high tide, or turn back.

During sea turtle nesting season, vehicular traffic on our beaches is only allowed from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., but that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t affect the turtles on their missions. The vehicles compress the sand to the point that the tide creates a steep drop off, unable to smooth the tightly compacted shore. Where this cliff doesn’t become an issue, the dense beaches may still create difficulties for nesting sea turtles, who have to dig a hole deep enough to protect their eggs from predators and incubate them to fruition.

It seems that the most obvious solution to the problem is for sand and nourishment to be returned to the beaches in the areas they need it. It’s a tricky process. New sand and sediment is shipped in and deposited on the beach in order to help return a little natural maintenance to the area. However, it’s a process that includes a lot of factors, and might cause more harm than good if not done properly. The nutrients in the new sand has to be the same as the sand already in place, or it might affect all wildlife, not just the sea turtle population. On top of that, the movement of the machinery it takes to carry out the beach nourishment will further compact the sand it moves over, crushing existing nests or digging them up in the dredging that takes place afterward in order to loosen the layers of the shoreline.

For now, as the season nears an end, the only thing to do seems to follow the guidelines of doing your part to individually help the nesting sea turtles. Simple processes like removing structures from the beach at night, not using white light to illuminate the beaches, and not disturbing any nesting sea turtle you might happen to stumble upon. However, perhaps beach nourishment might be something our community should look into during the sea turtle’s off season.

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