The full extent of damage from Hurricane Michael is still not known. But when the storm hit the Florida Panhandle, it did more than destroy property and accumulate a human death toll that is still on the rise. Part of the hurricane’s devastation included sweeping away the nests of threatened baby loggerhead sea turtles that were hatching on Florida beaches after damage from previous storms.
From May through October, the Gulfside Beaches in Florida’s Franklin County are dotted with sea turtle nests. But Hurricane Michael has replaced the dunes with scalloped sand in the town of Alligator Point, which was one of the most prolific areas for sea turtle nests in the state.
Loggerheads are a federally-protected species and the most common type of sea turtle in Florida. Sea turtles lay eggs many times throughout the season, which results in hundreds of nests across the Panhandle that each hold anywhere between 50 to 150 eggs. Protecting those nests is a 24/7 job, and volunteers and city staff both work to make sure the hatchlings can make it to the ocean safely.
At St. George Island in Franklin County, there were only seven nests left after the hurricane, but volunteers said if they haven’t already hatched, it is likely that none survived.
According to Reuters, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute started monitoring the beaches of Franklin County for sea turtle nesting activity back in 1979. In the 1990s, there was a huge increase in the number of turtles hatching and crawling to the ocean. Since then, there has been a significant drop-off. “The downward trend seen with hatch success began as a result of beach conditions and has continued due to tropical storms, high tides and erosion,” said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s website.
However, during the last year, Franklin County had more than 1,1100 loggerhead nests — the most the state had seen in four years. Hurricane Michael came late in the nesting season, and that might be the only reason that this year’s turtle population wasn’t totally wiped out. Florida master naturalist Lesley Cox said that they had a lot of nests this year and no storms until Michael, so there is a good chance that a lot of hatchlings made it. Now, the question remains whether or not the beach erosion from the storm will keep the area from being a sufficient habitat for nesting next year.