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Sea Turtles in Battle For US Nesting Grounds

Miami Beach is a top destination for vacationers from around the world -- not to mention a location for sea turtles laying eggs. For eons, female sea turtles have returned to the beaches where they were born to build nests for their next generation. As Miami Beach continues to develop, wildlife officials and volunteers are making sure the beach remains a welcoming place for these endangered animals.

The sea turtle patrol starts his day at sunrise.

"The reason we need to get out at first light is to make sure we see the tracks before anybody else gets out here, Bill Ahern says, "Something that weighs 350 pounds [160 kilograms] is going to leave evidence."

Bill Ahern directs the sea turtle program in Miami-Dade county.

His team monitors and marks nests left by sea turtles who lay eggs in the sand and then return to the sea. The patrols also work with beach residents to keep track of new nests and possible threats to existing ones.

Nearly 65,000 turtles nested on Florida's Atlantic coast last year. A tiny portion come to Miami Beach where they face many risks. Tough laws have cracked down on poachers. And bright lights from nearby buildings can confuse hatchlings, luring them onto roads instead of into the ocean.

"I recall in the mid-1960s, me and my beach buddies would pick up hatchlings [from the road] and put them back in the water," he recalls.

To avoid that problem, city officials have imposed limits on coastal lighting.

The end result: Ahern's team has been able to leave more nests intact and out of the hatchery they maintain.

"We only had 25 nests moved to the hatchery [this year]. In years prior to 2003, everything would get relocated to a safe, protected area of the hatchery," he said.

Although most sea turtles hatch on their own, emerging at night, some have a harder time.

"Here we go. We have one loggerhead so far. We may find some of the eggs are unfertile, we may find some have died, he says, "But that guy is pretty lively so we have saved him."

In the future, the Sea Turtles Program hopes to do away with the hatchery.

Educating beach-goers is a step in that direction. Each week, people are invited to see a release of hatchlings recovered from nests.

The experience helps sunbathers understand the role of the beach in the turtle's life cycle.

Since 1980, the Miami-Dade program has released more than a half million turtle hatchlings to the sea.

"I have two hatchlings that are ready to go, so I'm going to release them here at Haulover Beach," he explains.

Only a fraction of the hatchlings will escape predators and man-made perils in their first year.

"Their instincts are so keen," he says, "I'll face him to the west, and watch him, he turns right around facing the ocean. Mother ocean."

For the females born on Miami Beach, as adults, they will try to return home to lay their eggs.