When Irma slammed ashore in Florida on Sunday, it hit one of the state’s most delicate species, the sea turtles that call the state’s thousands miles of coastline home.
Richard WhiteCloud founded the Sea Turtle Oversight Protection (STOP), a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, organization that deploys volunteers to beaches to monitor and save sea turtle hatchlings.
WhiteCloud walked across a drawbridge still closed to cars today in Fort Lauderdale to reach the beach and check on sea turtle nests after Irma's devastatingly heavy wind and rain.
“The beach was totally ravaged however we did see some nest markers in place that were high up in the dune system,” WhiteCloud told ABC News. “Some of those nests were left intact, but whether or not they’re viable, there’s no real way for us to know until they actually hatch.”
WhiteCloud estimates there were approximately 900 turtle nests throughout Broward County that were still active when the storm came in. The hatching season for turtles throughout most of Florida runs from March through October.
“If [Irma] had come in peak season in July, it would have been devastating,” WhiteCloud said. “We literally have hundreds of nests hatching every night then.”
Irma first made landfall in the Florida Keys Sunday morning as a Category 4 hurricane, bringing 130 mph winds and a storm surge of 10 feet. It was the first Category 4 storm to make landfall in Florida since 2004.
Five species of sea turtles, all protected under state statutes, call Florida's waters and beaches home, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC).
Sea turtles swimming near shore to mate are in danger of being struck by boats. Female turtles and their young can become disoriented by lights on shore as they try to find the sea.
WhiteCloud will spend the coming days working with county officials and volunteers to inspect how turtles' nests fared across the county's coastline. He said it will not be a “catastrophic hit” to the state’s turtle population if some nests are lost from Irma, but it should be a reminder for humans of the threat posed by polluting, boating and over development.
“The lesson for us is that we could lose an entire inventory of sea turtle nests during one storm, which is why it’s imperative that we minimize the man-made impacts that cause loss to the animals during their season,” he said. “Being mindful of trash on the beach, artificial lights, pollution in the ocean, improper development, those are the things that we can and need to do something about.”
Further north, in Sarasota on Florida's West Coast, a team from the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is just starting to assess potential damage to the more than 4,000 turtle nests that were active before Irma arrived.
“They can withstand some water but it’s the standing water that is not too good,” said spokeswoman Shelby Isaacson. “Thankfully for our area in particular, the storm went by really quickly so we’re hoping that means we won’t have a lot of standing water.”
Isaacson advises beachgoers who come across turtle nests disrupted by Irma, or in general, to leave them alone.
"You can put a little sand over it if you have to, but do not touch any of the eggs," she said. "It's best to leave it as is."
A group of around 40 turtle hatchlings and 10 fully grown and young adult sea green, loggerhead and leatherback turtles were transported last week from the Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
The Georgia Aquarium closed today as Irma threatened Atlanta, but the turtles are being cared for by a team staying at the aquarium. The turtles will stay at the Georgia Aquarium until is safe for them to return to Juno Beach in Palm Beach County, an aquarium spokeswoman told ABC News.
"The turtles are all rescues and our animal care teams are working alongside Loggerhead’s teams to provide uninterrupted care to them and are doing well," the spokeswoman told ABC News by email. "Loggerhead Marinelife Center’s ultimate goal following these turtles’ rescue and rehabilitation is release back to the ocean."