Is it OK to assist a sea turtle hatchling in distress?

By Sarah Peters - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sea turtles are protected under federal and state law, and it’s illegal to take or disturb them in any way, including touching them.

But what about hatchlings who hit trouble on their trek to the ocean?

Sandy Nortunen, an editor at the Palm Beach Post, saw a newly hatched turtle climbing a mound of seaweed to get to the ocean while she was picking up litter about 6:45 or 7 a.m. Sunday on Palm Beach. She captured the turtle’s journey on video, which included her nudging seaweed.

“He sort of got stuck, and he was flapping his flipper a lot,” so she pushed underneath the seaweed to help him get over it, she said.

Is it OK to assist a sea turtle hatchling in distress? photo

Picture: A loggerhead turtle returns to the ocean after nesting at MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach, where a record 1,762 nests have been recorded. Rangers and volunteers have counted as many as 52 nests in one night on their daily surveys. There are still three months to go in nesting season. Photo courtesy of MacArthur Beach State Park






That sparked debate on social media about whether she should have done so. Here’s what the field operations manager of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach said:

“There are no regulations on moving an obstacle away from the path of a hatchling sea turtle as long as the hatchling is not handled or manipulated in the process of moving the obstacle. Our best advice is for people to help watch out for birds and crabs, as these have a much larger impact on the hatchlings than a bit of sargassum sea weed,” Adrienne McCracken said in a statement.

“In fact, sea turtle hatchlings can crawl over sargassum weed easily if they’re healthy. One simple way beach-goers can help hatchlings is to fill in holes and level sandcastles after a day at the beach to avoid trapping or blocking nesting females and hatchlings from making their way to the sea.”

She said in this case, there was no need to move the seaweed the hatchling was atop.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s hotline staff can answer questions about the safest course of action for a hatchling in distress, said Cheryl Houghtelin, Executive Director of the Friends of MacArthur Beach State Park.

The FWC also recommends calling the hotline if you see a hatchling that appears to be disoriented, but that didn’t seem to be the case, she said.

“I was really impressed with that little one, because it was moving very fast and pretty much going right toward the ocean,” she said.

After the turtles get to the Sargasso Sea, a region in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean where all the currents deposit the marine plants, they’ll be crawling all over the seaweed, Houghtelin said.

Sea turtle hatchlings as they crawl across the sand are getting oriented to their surroundings. They use magnetic fields to navigate when they reach the water, MacCracken said. Touching the turtles can introduce bacteria or viruses, or cause unnecessary stress.

Nortunen said she had no intention of touching the turtle or picking it up to put it in the water.

With so many nests this season, she’s worried about trash on the beach affecting the turtles. She collected two full bags of litter Sunday, she said.

“Now with all these turtles, it’s more important than ever,” she said.

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Turtle touching rules

- If a hatchling is active and crawling toward the water, leave it alone.

- If a hatchling is weak, lethargic, washing back ashore or not crawling toward the water, it may need to be transported to a rehab center. You can transport it to a Marine life center in a dry, cool and dark container. Don’t transport hatchlings in water, because they can drown in their weakened state.

Source: Loggerhead Marinelife Center