Sea Turtle-Safe Boating

The sad outcome of a sea turtle vs. boat collision. PHOTO CREDIT: Mary Wozny.
The sad outcome of a sea turtle vs. boat collision. PHOTO CREDIT: Mary Wozny.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith sea turtle nesting season in full swing along the Treasure Coast, it’s important to think about the potential impacts that boaters can have on these ancient reptilian visitors. While we’re all familiar with the unfortunate outcome of manatee vs. boat interactions, the toll that careless boating takes on sea turtles receives little attention. The next time you’re out on the water, keep the following pointers in mind:

Propeller injuries

Sea turtles are cold blooded, meaning their body temperature fluctuates with the temperature of their surroundings. Unlike freshwater turtles, sea turtles don’t crawl out of the water to bask in the sun when they get chilly. Instead, they float motionless at the surface, soaking up as much of the sun’s warmth as they can. A cold turtle is a slow turtle – think of yourself in the morning before your first cup of coffee. As a result, these turtles don’t always react to an approaching boat. Don’t ever assume that a sea turtle in your boat’s path will dive before you reach it. That mindset has led to the death of countless turtles. Instead, make an effort to maneuver around sea turtles you see floating at the surface. Sea turtles are particularly vulnerable to boat collisions when water temperatures suddenly drop following winter cold fronts; however, summertime upwelling events and long dives to chilly depths can also cause turtles to spend some extra time at the surface. The summer mating season represents another vulnerable period for sea turtles. Very little, including an approaching boat, will shake mating turtles from their passionate embrace. Because a sea turtle’s armored shell is actually made up of fused rib and spine bones, a shell break is often fatal. Fortunately, Florida’s sea turtle hospitals have pioneered techniques to heal and rehabilitate sea turtles with severe shell injuries. If you accidentally hit a turtle with your boat, or come upon an injured turtle at sea or on the beach, please call FWC at 1-888-404-FWCC for further instructions. A quick response improves a turtle’s chances of survival.


Boat strikes aren’t the only boating-related threat to sea turtles. More than 75% of the sea turtles that are treated at Florida’s turtle hospitals have plastic in their digestive tract. While plastic bags are a major culprit, all kind of trash has been found inside of rescued sea turtles. As a responsible boater and angler, please stop throwing chum boxes, ice bags, and food wrappers overboard! Sure, it’s a big ocean, but it only takes one sandwich baggie in the wrong place at the wrong time to end the life of a sea turtle. If it goes out with you at the start of the day, make sure it comes back with you at the end.

Propeller scars in seagrass beds

Seagrass beds in the Indian River Lagoon (as well as The Bahamas, Bermuda, and Mexico) provide important nursery habitat for juvenile green sea turtles. Unfortunately, our Indian River Lagoon has lost more than 47,000 acres of seagrass in the last four years thanks to algae blooms triggered by nutrient-rich runoff. The small patches of seagrass that remain in the lagoon are essential for the survival of young green sea turtles. While touching bottom with your propeller doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, prop scars can cut through the thick layer of roots that anchor seagrass beds in place. Once this protective layer is damaged, the seagrass bed becomes vulnerable to erosion. In areas that experience strong currents or heavy boat wake, even a small prop scar can jumpstart the erosion process, eventually allowing huge areas of healthy seagrass to wash away. To protect these valuable nursery habitats (used by sea turtles, as well as countless fish and shellfish species), know your boat’s draft, and avoid running across flats whenever possible.

In honor of Sea Turtle Month at Florida Oceanographic Society, come say hello to the four permanently disabled sea turtles that call our Coastal Center their “forever home.” Three of these turtles are with us because of injuries sustained in boat collisions. Looking for an unusual gift for children of all ages? Visit our website ( for information about our sea turtle adoption program. All proceeds go directly towards the care of our animals.

Zack Jud, Ph.D., is the Director of Education at Florida Oceanographic Society. He is a coastal ecologist (researching tarpon, snook, bonefish, permit, and lionfish), a marine science educator, and a fly casting and fly tying instructor. Zack can be reached at