Ocean Friendly Gardens, GAP
May 12 2015

Surfers & Turtles Like Florida’s Natural Beaches

by Mike Daniel

From Melbourne Beach down to Sebastian Inlet, the southern fifteen miles of Brevard County’s coast has always been a haven for surfers. The water always seemed a little clearer, the waves a little snappier, and the relative sparseness of development made for ‘’wilder’’ beaches. And of course there was the Sebastian Inlet itself, home to the best-known wave on the East Coast.

But you might not know that these same beaches are also the most important sea turtle nesting habitat in the northern hemisphere. While sea turtles nest on many beaches, nowhere else comes close to the numbers or density of nesting here in south Brevard. In 2013, there were 740 nests per kilometer! Researchers have determined that loggerhead and green turtles prefer steep, narrow, high energy, natural beaches; and this area suits that description perfectly. It turns out surfers and sea turtles like the same thing – Florida’s natural beaches!

In the early 1990s the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge (ACNWR) was created to preserve this nesting habitat and other barrier island habitats like coastal strand, maritime hammocks, and mangrove shorelines along the Indian River Lagoon. This is an unusual NWR: there is some embedded, pre-existing development, but the wise decision was made to preserve many natural areas for future generations of sea turtles and humans. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the ACNWR and owns much of the property, but the total area in conservation is augmented by state and Brevard County lands.

The Sebastian Inlet Chapter has been involved in the Archie Carr Working Group (WG) for several years. The WG brings together the scientists, government agencies, and NGOs to steer the future of the ACNWR. As an active member of this group, we have been strong advocates for ‘’keeping these beaches natural’." A logical outgrowth of this was three consecutive years of large-scale sea oat planting projects led by our volunteer coordinator Jason Hyder. In cooperation with the Sea Turtle Conservancy, we’ve planted roughly a mile of ACNWR beaches, creating a completely new fore-dune in some areas.

So when USFWS informed us that they were demolishing an oceanfront home, we jumped at the chance to help them restore the property to native coastal strand (the home had been willed to USFWS about the time the Refuge was formed, and for many years had served as home base for turtle researchers). Our Ocean Friendly Garden Program Coordinator, Bill DeLuccia, is a native plant expert and the perfect person to put this effort together. Working with Anibal Vasquez and Oliver Van Den Ende of USFWS, Bill selected the plants and USFWS purchased them from Maple Street Natives (a local native plant nursery).

After putting a few hundred sea oats in the dune line in first phase of this project, we returned on May 9th to place over 400 coastal natives on the backdune/coastal strand/hammock.  Among the species: beauty berry, coral bean, fiddlewood, golden beach creeper (threatened), sand live oak, saw palmetto, seaside goldenrod, white stopper, and wild coffee. Digging 400+ holes is not easy, especially when the surf is looking pretty fun a hundred yards away. But we had a great group of about 25 volunteers and had the work done in about two hours.

As we finished up and stepped back to look at what we’d accomplished, butterflies seemed to appear from out of nowhere and started lighting on the plants. They’d ‘’found’’ these new food sources almost as soon as we’d put them in. I’m told that migratory birds will also benefit from this concentration of natives - which just added to our satisfaction.

As I tell people when we’re looking for volunteers, these are the kind of projects that will grow on you!

Notes: thanks to Mike Daniel, Chair of the Sebastian Inlet Chapter, for writing this blog post! Photo documentation by James Kilby of KilbyPhoto LLC is invaluable. Volunteering his time and talent to our chapter provides us with artfully crafted, evocative images.