A Passionate Community of Activists, Scientists, and Volunteers Are Devoted To Saving Florida's Sea Turtles

Introducing the Turtle Heroes of Palm Beach.

Hatchlings trek across the beach
Green sea turtle hatchlings head to the ocean by Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Photo: Cedric Angeles

The sun has just edged above the Atlantic horizon to cast its morning glow on Riviera Beach, and even that dawn brushstroke grips the June day with a simmering heat. Does this slow the step, the scrambling, the chirping commentary of Debbie Sobel?

Not a bit. Sobel is on her daily dawn patrol of this half-mile-long stretch of sand—her beach, she'll remind you. She's on a mission, and that relentless South Florida sun seems like a form of solar power for her. Sobel, who has been striding up the damp ground near the water with the purpose of General Patton and the swiveling surveillance of a frontier scout, spots an easy-to-overlook braid-work of skinny little tracks from sand to shoreline. It looks like someone dragged their fingernails down the beach toward the water.

Hatchlings!

Sobel pivots to follow the trail uphill, picking up speed as her bare feet dig into the soft sand. Her destination is the source of those little tracks, a sea turtle nest that she and her small cadre of trusted volunteers spotted, documented, and cordoned off with protective do-not-disturb signage about eight weeks ago. Earlier this morning in the dark, around a hundred baby turtles hatched from this nest and made their way to the ocean, but Sobel has more to do.

"It's time to check the nest for stragglers," she says ebulliently and then bends over with the flexibility of a yogi and starts clawing at the sand and flinging it back between her legs. It's comic but efficient: Sobel is doing her human version of what a female sea turtle did when she dug this 5-foot-deep hole to deposit her precious eggs in the middle of the night. As Sobel's hole deepens, she drops to her knees to dig deeper. Not yet to the egg chamber, she gets on her belly on the sand and reaches her long, slender arm into the hole to excavate with increasing care. "You've got to get down to the nest but not overdo it," she says. "There might be hatchlings still in there."

Debbie Sobel on the beach
Debbie Sobel. Cedric Angeles

Hatchlings indeed. Sobel is playing cleanup, performing a census, and sometimes serving as a handmaiden during the risk-strewn journey undertaken by thousands of ancient reptiles that nest on sandy Southern coastlines from March through October. It's a season of struggle against the grim momentum of endangerment and near extinction, and Palm Beach County is ground zero. This 46-mile swath of breathtaking beachfront linking Jupiter to the north, Palm Beach in the middle, and Boca Raton to the south might be better known for its tourism, but it is also the densest sea turtle nesting grounds in the country. (And that's saying something in Florida, which is home to a staggering 90% of sea turtle-nesting activity in the United States annually.) Based on numbers alone, one might call this place Turtle Town.

But what makes this area the true Turtle Town is its human complement. Inspired by those legions of green, leatherback, and loggerhead turtles (the most common nesters in Palm Beach County), a matching ecosystem of passionate locals has risen up. "You never forget your first sea turtle encounter," says Sobel, who has been a self-described turtle lady for more than 30 years. "It got me hook, line, and sinker." It's easy to understand why: Like gentle gods with their deep gazes and time-stands-still modes of locomotion, the world's seven species of sea turtles have been chased by humans to the brink of extinction, starting with being overhunted in the 19th and 20th centuries for their shells and meat (although it's illegal, their eggs are still stolen by poachers, even in Palm Beach County). By the 1970s, four species—hawksbill, green, Kemp's ridley, and leatherback—were officially labeled as endangered by the United States. Loggerhead and olive ridley turtles are at risk of extinction; Australia categorizes its flatback turtle as a cautious "vulnerable."

Despite that protected status, sea turtles must still endure humanity's slings and arrows in their oceanic home: They suffer accidental catch by commercial fisheries, entanglement in marine debris, laceration from outboard motors, the intestinal scourge caused by ingesting plastic, and the tumor-producing impact of pollution and climate change. From land, they embark on an Olympic-level reproductive cycle fraught with peril: Mating at sea during migrations of up to 1,000 miles, the females return to the sands of their birth to lumber out of the surf by night, find a safe spot to dig a large hole, deposit around 100 Ping-Pong ball-size eggs, cover and pat down the nest, and then drag themselves back to the ocean, exhausted.

Deborah Drum
Deborah Drum of Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management. Cedric Angeles

Two months later, with their mother long gone, they hatch in an underground frenzy of nipping through their shells and clawing blindly with little flippers up through all those feet of sand to the surface. (The tiny turtles hatch practically all at once and burble out of the sand like a flipper-mad mob, which is why the event is called a "boil.") Their challenge is to get to the sea en masse before being picked off by predatory birds, raccoons, foxes, or any other beachcombing carnivores. At the surf line, the offspring disperse, each a solo hero in a journey to swim to distant sargassum zones of protective and nutritious algae, where they take 20 to 30 years to mature and grow to ponderous sizes (the leatherback, the largest sea turtle species, can weigh up to a ton and can measure 9 feet long). If they survive that gauntlet, they return and reenter the zone of human booby traps and dangerous indifference. It's a steep price to pay for merely surviving, much less regaining population.

But Palm Beachers are anything but indifferent. Call it a village or maybe an army (it feels a bit like both). Here, hundreds of dedicated locals—volunteers, conservationists, college interns, veterinarians, research scientists, and county employees who are as indefatigable as Sobel—not to mention sympathetic home, condo, and hotel owners—rally together to guard their sea turtles like family. And with over 30,000 nests to tend over the course of a single season, that's a whole lot of relatives.

"We're all crazy turtle workaholics," says Teal Kawana, whose official title of environmental analyst for Palm Beach County's Department of Environmental Resources Management (ERM) should really be sea turtle field marshal. "You have to be passionate," she says. Kawana stands at the center of the county's network and can rattle off the organizational chart by heart. At the grassroots level, 11 licensed "permit holders"—longtime volunteers like Sobel, professionals contracted by municipalities, and nonprofits—cover the entirety of the county's beaches, marking nests and performing vital surveys of activity seven days a week throughout the nesting season. All that data, some handwritten on papers shoved into salt-streaked clipboards, is reported to the county for analysis by Kawana and her three colleagues who are devoted to sea turtles (until it's manatee season come winter).

Teal Kawana
Teal Kawana cares for Palm Beach County’s sea turtles. Cedric Angeles

That's the nesting side of the equation, she says. Then there's rescue and rehabilitation. Remarkably, Palm Beach County has two facilities devoted to the cause—Loggerhead Marinelife Center to the north in Juno Beach and Gumbo Limbo Nature Center to the south in Boca Raton. Both facilities rescue, treat, and rehabilitate injured and ill sea turtles and return them to the water when they're ready (or keep them as ambassadors if unreleasable). They also—through tourism, summer camps, hatchling releases, and turtle walk programs—educate thousands of visitors annually. These people inevitably fall in love with the patients in open-air tanks and become turtle fans who rethink their own environmental impact, support programs financially, and perhaps even join the volunteer corps here or in another nesting area closer to home (see below for other turtle hot spots across the South).

But that's not all. Kawana also oversees ERM's 35-year-old beachfront-lighting program that requires folks with seaside properties—from single homes and condos to resort hotels—to turn off their lights at night during nesting season. The reason, she explains, is that humans, with their love of illumination, have dangerously fouled up the navigation of nesting and hatching turtles. "Turtles use the reflection of the moon and stars on the water to tell them where the ocean is," she says. "If there are lights behind them above the beach, they'll go there instead." The outcomes range from troubling—females becoming confused and lost—to gruesome, where they are lured toward roadways, disoriented, and killed by motorists. Hatchlings can suffer similar fates. If you want to put in a new light or replace one in Palm Beach County's official Sea Turtle Protection Zone, you'll need a permit, and Kawana and her team walk the beaches at night to make sure folks are staying in compliance. It might feel strange to swim in a pool that's lit by special red bulbs that don't lure sea turtles or to eat dinner outside at a restaurant in near darkness, but that's Turtle Town's promise to its nesting leviathans.

Finally, world-class sea turtle research also happens in the Palm Beaches. On local waters, shorts- and sandals-clad young biologists from Inwater Research Group, a 21-year-old nonprofit organization, cruise the Intracoastal Waterway, lagoons, and outlets to the ocean. They tag and monitor sea turtles in situ with the graceful aplomb of rodeo lassoers and gentle hands of pediatric nurses. (For proof, just watch them lift an energetic juvenile green turtle from alongside their boat, take myriad measurements, and carefully lavage its stomach to analyze what it's been feeding on before sending it back on its way.) Meanwhile, at Florida Atlantic University's Marine Science Laboratory in Boca Raton, Dr. Jeanette Wyneken (whose dynamic style and publishing output give her a rock star quality) works with graduate and undergraduate students on sea turtle development. "People love turtles, but we know so little," she says—for years, most of the information about the open-sea roamers was only from their brief times near the coasts. "These projects couldn't function without the curiosity of students. They are a whole new set of eyes."

Jeff Guertin tags a green sea turtle
Jeff Guertin of Inwater Research Group tags a green sea turtle for monitoring near DuBois Park in Jupiter, Florida. Cedric Angeles

Two ponytailed grad students hover over a tank the size of a large home aquarium to carefully feed a squadron of teeny-tiny leatherback young. Each small enough to nestle in an oversize soupspoon, the youths swim energetically nonstop while tethered by filament epoxied to their shells and tied to a framework over the tank. "Sea turtles are used to swimming constantly in open water," Wyneken says, "but in tanks, these guys were just constantly bumping into the sides." Now, they swim in place unhindered while being observed. Everywhere, it seems, there's an undercurrent of compassion, even in the halls of science.

At Gumbo Limbo Nature Center right next door to Wyneken's lab, you can feel that love among the warmhearted team of biologists who tend to 50 to 100 outsize patients a year in small operating rooms and oversee their rehab outdoors in raised pools shaded by broad canopies. If you aren't already crazy about sea turtles, you will be after a stroll on this tropical ward. For one thing, each turtle receives a name upon arrival (Gumbo Limbo goes through different themes every few months; last summer it was superheroes and then women from history). For example, Oprah Winfrey, a juvenile green turtle, was rescued about 200 miles up the coast in New Smyrna Beach where she was found floating (a sign something's wrong) after a boat strike to the back of her shell. She also had fibropapilloma tumors bulging around her fins. This common ailment is likely caused by degrading environmental conditions. Now that Oprah has had her tumors removed, is on medications, and is regaining her strength doing laps in her pool, she's on the road to recovery and release. If you walk away from all this misty-eyed, you can follow the progress of any patient on Gumbo Limbo's website and also try to catch a release day—when the turtle is carried down to the water's edge to be set free, often flanked by applauding and tear-dabbing fans. There are few valedictory moments more tender and joyful.

Caitlin Bovery
Caitlin Bovery of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Cedric Angeles

For Deborah Drum, ERM's department director, the hearts at Gumbo Limbo are as big as the creatures they serve. While the facilities and high-profile vets at Loggerhead Marinelife Center inspire ambitious capital campaigns and social media buzz with their high-tech operating rooms, sparkling renovated museum, community spaces, and gift shop, locals tend to love Gumbo Limbo. "They never say no to a sea turtle," Drum says simply—an all-in attitude that feels increasingly typical after a few days in Turtle Town.

And, as Kawana has said, that's a 24-7 relationship. Just before heading home to clean up for a late-night turtle walk she's hosting, Kawana sees her mobile phone light up with calls about a stranded turtle at nearby Boynton Beach. It's unclear whether it is alive or dead, but either way, she needs to take care of it. She hops in her Chevy Colorado, drives up State A1A to the parking lot, and hotfoots it down to the waterline. There the large creature sits ominously still, with wavelets lapping at its form. Three lifeguards brief Kawana and help lift the reptile so she can see its underside. She spies gashes—the wounds are mortal. That means this turtle, a loss for the cause of conservation, will give to the cause of research. She gets the guys to hoist the animal—a green turtle weighing between 300 and 350 pounds, she estimates—onto a rescue longboard and haul it to her pickup. "I used to have a hatchback and was putting turtles in there," she recalls. The rising marine odor of the animal in South Florida's late-day heat previews the punch line: "My husband suggested maybe it was time to get a truck." Kawana drives the turtle to Florida Atlantic University's main campus in Boca Raton, where Wyneken meets her with a couple of students in tow. The four women haul the turtle into an outbuilding that is a walk-in freezer. "A male," the researcher says, in admiration and requiem. She pats the carapace gently before locking the freezer door.

Jackie Kingston
Jackie Kingston, founder of the nonprofit Sea Turtle Adventures. Cedric Angeles

But for every late-day loss, there's a morning dawning with volunteers patrolling their beaches. Not far from Sobel's territory, Jackie Kingston readies her ATV at Gulfstream Park public beach with her mom and a pair of volunteers—Erika and J.R., two young adults with developmental disabilities. A permit holder since she was 16, Kingston founded a nonprofit, Sea Turtle Adventures, in 2016 to merge her love for these animals with her love for people with developmental disabilities. Now, her iCARE program includes up to 150 eager young adults, many of whom work the beaches with Kingston and her team. "Jackie has taught Erika so much," says her mom, Nancy Suto, who's come along for the ride today. The team discovers a large nest from the previous night. "It's a leatherback!" Kingston says, explaining to Erika and J.R. how to distinguish the shape and scale of that nest from others. She hands them wooden stakes and tape to begin marking off the nest. "I give them real responsibilities," she says. "It's great for all of us," which, of course, includes the turtle eggs buried in the sand.

"I love the beach," Erika says, pounding in stakes. J.R. eyes the massive mound of sand, the gesture of hope and trust from a now-departed female leatherback. "So, the adult mama doesn't take care of the babies," he says. "That's kind of sad." Kingston meets the young man's eyes and reassures him, saying, "But they can take care of themselves." That is, perhaps, with just a little help from some friends in Turtle Town.

Boca Raton beach
Boca Raton, Florida’s beaches provide prime nesting grounds for sea turtles. Cedric Angeles

Six More Turtle Towns

Sea turtles nest on sandy shores throughout the South, from the Gulf Coast of Texas to beaches in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Some even nest as far north as Maryland's Assateague Island National Seashore (though this is rare). Want to get closer to your reptilian neighbors in safe and helpful ways? Check out these other must-visit destinations.

Marathon, Florida

You can view sea turtles any day of the year at this island in the heart of the Florida Keys. It's the site of The Turtle Hospital, a nonprofit rehabilitation center that offers excellent tours (book ahead).

Brevard County, Florida

Home to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge (which was created to protect both loggerhead and green sea turtles), this is where you'll also find nesting digs helmed by the Sea Turtle Conservancy and the Sea Turtle Preservation Society.

Sea Island, Georgia

This beachfront resort loves and protects its nesting loggerheads and invites guests to join guided walks and private morning patrols as well as adopt-a-nest programs.

Bald Head Island, North Carolina

Here, the Bald Head Island Conservancy leads the mission to protect loggerhead and green sea turtles that nest on local beaches. Take part in turtle walks, learn from their naturalists, and support their excellent research and conservation efforts.

Charleston, South Carolina

Not a beach town per se, this Lowcountry city is home to the South Carolina Aquarium and its Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery exhibit, which is a rehab hospital that visitors can tour. (You can sometimes catch live releases on local beaches.)

Padre Island, Texas

From the legacy of Ila Loetscher (the iconic Turtle Lady who founded Sea Turtle, Inc., in 1977) has sprung a community that famously rescued thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles after a vicious winter storm in 2021 and nursed them back to health.

Newly hatched baby turtles
Florida Chuck/Getty Images

How to Help

According to the pros, the best thing you can do for sea turtles everywhere is limit your use of anything plastic, especially the single-use items like shopping bags and drink bottles. If you live or vacation in nesting areas, here are some easy ways to help the creatures nest and hatch safely.

Do Not Disturb

If you see an adult sea turtle coming ashore, don't approach or shine a light on it; you could disorient it or force it back to the ocean before nesting.

Turn Out the Lights

On the beachfront, outdoor and even indoor lighting confuses nesters and hatchlings. Use blinds on your windows, and keep the outside fixtures off during nesting season.

Never Touch a Hatchling

It might feel like you're helping, but a baby turtle needs to make the journey to the water's edge on its own. And avoid disturbing a nest in any way.

Stay Off Dunes, and Don't Pick Sea Oats

These are crucial habitats for turtles. Foot traffic kills plants and hurts the dunes. Keep on boardwalks or designated paths to the beach.

Clean Up After Yourself

Sea turtles can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them, so pick up everything from your beach day, including chairs and tents, which can trap them.

Fill In Holes

These are also potential traps for sea turtles, so fill them in after digging.

Report Issues

Share info about nestings, strandings, and evidence of crawling too. If you're in a turtle nesting area, there's likely a rehab facility, conservancy, or another organization. Tell them what you've found with a quick phone call.

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