Melbourne Beach Turtle Walk

I didn’t put much effort into this photo of last Saturday’s super moon  – so the result isn’t that exciting.

Super moon over Melbourne Beach

Super moon over Melbourne Beach – The full moon and sparse clouds helped get our shutter speeds up just a little during the turtle walk.

What did excite me was what the super moon illuminated.   Kevin M. and I attended a turtle walk led by the Sea Turtle Preservation Society in Melbourne Beach, Florida – what an incredibly awesome experience!

Loggerhead sea turtles are endangered in the US and many other countries.  They seem to be making a comeback recently since “turtle excluder devices” were required on fishing nets starting in the late 1980s.  They’re found over most of the world, although the east coast of Florida is a prime nesting area.  Nesting season peaks here June and July.  Last year, Florida recorded 58,000 nests with many of them in Brevard County.

I’ve spotted sea turtles  off shore on the surface before, but until Saturday I’d never seen one on the beach.  Since they’re endangered, it’s illegal to approach or harass them in any way.  But there is a way to see them up close on shore.  The Sea Turtle Preservation Society has a Florida State permit to conduct Turtle Walks for the public several nights a week during nesting season at three different locations in South Brevard County. They give a presentation with lots of good background on sea turtles.  During the presentation, people from the organization scout the beach looking for a nesting Loggerhead. When they find one, they lead the group out to observe.

Loggerhead sea turtle laying eggs
Loggerhead sea turtle laying eggs – The guides keep everyone behind the turtle where she can’t see them and put a small red light in the nest to illuminate the eggs.

There are some rules for the walk:

  • Stay with and obey the guides.  They’ll lead you to the nest along the water line after she starts laying eggs.
  • No lights at all are allowed, including cell phones and especially flash photography.
  • No noise.
  • Everyone is kept behind the turtle out of her line of sight.
  • When she’s done, the guides will move the group to one side away from her path back to the ocean.
  • Stay off the outgoing turtle tracks.  Researchers use them the next morning to count nests.
  • If you go, check with your group for their rules.  They may be different.

This is very tough photography assignment.  In fact it’s much more of a Central Florida Nature Op than a Central Florida Photo Op.  But if you want to try to make some photos, here are some hints:

  • The group we went with says they see turtles on 90% of their walks.  I’m not sure what it’s like with other groups.  You might want to ask before you go.
  • Check with the leaders of the group you’re going with about photography.  Rules seem to vary and some groups don’t allow any photography at all.
  • Schedule your walk to take advantage of conditions.  The beach is very dark.  Hotels and homes in the area are even required to keep their lights off during nesting season.  You’ll have a bit more light if you go during a full moon and when there’s minimum cloud cover.  Also, The turtles seem to prefer coming ashore at high tide.  Our walk was just after.  We were also fortunate to have a 10 mph east wind that kept us very comfortable and insect free.  I wasn’t even sweating at the end of the walk – and this is Florida – in late June!  But if the wind is too strong, you’ll have to watch out for tripod vibrations.
  • Other than the small flashlight in the photo above, all the other photos in this post were made with just ambient light well after sunset.  You’ll need a tripod and fast lens.
  • Be careful with your tripod.  The group was pretty large the night we went and I worried about hitting or tripping someone in the dark (I didn’t).
  • Bring a fast lens.  Kevin and I both used 50mm f/1.8 lenses and shot with them wide open.  This was a pretty good focal length for the subject distances.
  • The moon was very bright – I shot at ISO 800, f/1.8 and my shutter speed varied around 1 second.  If you go at another time of the month, your shutter speeds may be even slower.
  • Your tripod will help stop camera motion, but you’ll need to time your shots to minimize turtle motion.
  • The crowd was pretty large and I had to maneuver to get a clear view with my camera.  Be courteous.
  • Make sure you can work your camera controls in the dark.  You need to know how to at least change to manual focus and adjust the ISO without a flashlight.
  • Turn off your auto focus assist light and auto photo review – no lights, remember?
  • Auto focus was very difficult.  The only time it worked at all was on the guide’s red flashlight in the nest.  The rest of the time, I used manual focus and guessed since it was so dark.  You’ll need to take your chances and hope for some sharp shots.  Since it was so dim, I found the optical view finder on my Nikon easier to use than the EVF on my Olympus.  Your mileage may vary.
  • Depth of field will be very shallow.  Try to focus on the middle distance of your subject and if possible compose with the long axis of your subject parallel to the camera.
  • Surprisingly, shadows can be an issue.  There were times when people blocked the moon and shadows on the turtle were pretty dark.  Move around to find a better point of view.

Turtle walk crowd

Turtle walk crowd

When she’s done laying her eggs, she buries them and disguises the nest.

Loggerhead sea turtle laying eggs

Loggerhead sea turtle covering nest

And then heads back out to sea.

The Epic Journey Continues

The Epic Journey Continues – Loggerhead Turtle returning to the ocean.  Photo by Kevin McKinney (used with permission).

As you can probably tell from my write-up, I really enjoyed this outing.  It was wonderful to witness a natural event that’s been on going for 165 million years.  A big shout out and thank you to Kevin’s wife Traci.  She’s the one that recommended we go on the turtle walk.  And thanks to Kevin for scheduling it on the perfect night.

If you want to know more, here’s a couple of links to recent sea turtle news:

http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20130624/NEWS01/130624007

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-loggerhead-turtles-thriving-20130623,0,6384714.story

As usual, you can see a few other photos from the trip in my set on Flickr, and in Kevin’s set.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go witness some nature, and (if you can) make some photos!

©2013, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

About Ed Rosack

I live in Central Florida and enjoy exploring the area. I'm interested in nature and wildlife photography - and many other things. I'm the chief reporter, lead writer, managing editor, main photographer, and publisher of the Central Florida Photo Ops website hosted at www.edrosack.com. You can also see more of my photos on my Flickr stream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/edrosack/