Every year, from about May to September, nesting female sea turtles emerge from the Gulf of Mexico to use the beaches of the Gulf Islands to lay their eggs. Once a site is chosen, the turtle uses her hind flippers to dig a vase-shaped hole about two feet deep, and then lays her eggs. A nesting female will lay multiple nests per nesting season.
Most nesting sea turtle species come ashore at night, alone, and often during high tide. Some species, such as the Kemp’s ridley, nest during the day and generally emerge from the ocean by the hundreds to lay their nests in a mass nesting event called an arribada or arrival.
The temperature of the sand where hatchlings nest determines the sex of a hatchling. Nests incubating at cooler temperatures produce predominately males while nests incubating at warmer temperatures produce predominately females.
After incubating for upwards of sixty days, the clutch erupts with hatchlings that measure between 1.5 to 3 inches in length. With flippers flailing, each hatchling races for the sea. If hatchlings are able to escape predators, survive harsh tropical weather, and avoid man-made hazards, female hatchlings will eventually return to the same beaches or natal beaches to start the cycle over again, while males remain at sea for the rest of their lives.
In 2016, 69 turtle nests were documented in the national seashore. 67 of nests were confirmed to be loggerhead and 2 are believed to be Kemp’s ridley. A total of 6,953 loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley hatchlings were released into the Gulf of Mexico from Gulf Islands National Seashore and Pensacola Beach in Florida. To learn more about overall nesting trends in Florida, review the Statewide Nesting Beach Survey and the Index Nesting Beach Survey coordinated by the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.