Sea Turtle nesting season begins today on Central Florida beaches, where beachfront residents are required to turn off, shield and redirect lights to protect nesting turtles and their hatchlings.

Bright lights confuse nesting mothers and their offspring, leading them away from the ocean. Night beach walkers also are asked not to shine flashlights or use flash cameras near the turtles, who return to the beach every year through Oct. 31 for the nesting ritual.

A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was spotted April 24 on the beach at Ponce Inlet, according to Lisa Mickey, a naturalist and eco-tour leader at the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach.

The sighting is rare because the endangered Kemp’s ridley normally lays its eggs off the coast of Mexico and Texas. It was the first sea turtle sighted this year and only the 10th recorded Kemp’s ridley nesting on a Volusia County beach since 1996.

The Kemp’s ridley is the smallest and rarest of the sea turtle species and was added to the endangered list after their numbers dropped from a high of 40,000 nesting females in 1947 to a low of 702 in 1985. Through conservation efforts and relocation of nests to safer areas, the numbers have increased to about 20,000 today, according to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Green, loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles are most commonly found nesting on Central Florida beaches. The height of the nesting season is in June and July. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) counted 65,807 loggerhead nests in 2016 on Florida’s 27 core index beaches That’s more than double a low of 28,074 in 2007.

Sea turtles are protected by international, national and Florida laws, and all species are classified as endangered or threatened. The large creatures often get entangled in discarded fishing line or fishermen’s nets, coastal development has reduced their nesting habitats and ocean pollution threaten their future. Natural predators such as raccoons, fire ants and ghost crabs eat turtle eggs and hatchlings, while sharks and other large fish await young turtles in the ocean.

Sea turtles lay and average of 100 eggs and produce three to six nests each season. It is estimated that only one hatchling out of about 5,000 survive to maturity (15-30 years).

The Sea Turtle Grants Program, funded by the sale of Florida’s Helping Sea Turtles Survive specialty license plate, awarded $362,564.95 last month to 29 different sea turtle research, conservation and education programs. The sea turtle plate was ranked number three in 2016 behind the best-selling University of Florida and Florida State University specialty tags. It was the state’s  top selling environmental specialty plate.

FWC warns people not to touch sea turtles and to stay clear of their paths. Any distractions may frighten or disorient the turtle, causing a female to return to the ocean before finishing her nest.

Owners of beachfront property should remove obstacles like chairs, tables or sports equipment, which may impede the turtles, which can weight up to 350 pounds, as they make their way to the dune line to nest.

Holes dug in the beach sand should be refilled each evening so that sea turtles and hatchlings do not get caught on their way to nest or to the water.

Hatchlings must dig out of their nest, a process that can take days. Enjoy watching from a distance but don’t help them to the water. They need to make the trek on their own.

If you come across a hatchling that is wandering in a road, parking lot, or away from the water call the FWC Resource Alert at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or *FWC from a cell phone.

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