In order to keep local gopher tortoises from being helped to death by well-intentioned but uninformed beach goers, St. Johns County has installed signs around some of its beaches to educate visitors about the animals.
Tara Dodson, the county’s environmental supervisor, said the county has posted new signs at nine popular beach access points. The signs — 13 in all — were given to the county by the Florida Wildlife Federation.
The point of the signs is to help people understand what gopher tortoises are and that they live in the dunes. There have been multiple incidences in which people have seen the tortoises in the sand and decided to “save” them by carrying them to the water.
Yet tortoises are terrestrial animals not to be confused with sea turtles that come on land to lay their eggs.
Gopher tortoises are a Florida-protected species. They are known to frequent the beach and sometimes visit the water to regulate their body temperature or remove ticks.
“They (FWF) created the signs because lot of people who visit are not familiar (with tortoises),” Dodson said. “People will often mistake them for sea turtles and put the tortoise in the water.”
That’s the wrong thing to do since the tortoises don’t swim. And it’s even the wrong thing to do if beach goers encounter sea turtles on the beach or even marine mammals.
There is usually a reason that an air-breathing sea animal is stranded on land. They could be sick or injured or just exhausted. Forcing a beached animal back into the ocean without first contacting an animal expert could result in the animal’s death.
“We run into that problem a lot,” Dodson said.
Having the new signs should at least help educate people about the gopher tortoises. Dodson said it’s always helpful to update signage at beach access points so that more people notice.
“I really thought the message on this one was a good, positive message,” she said.
Sarah Gledhill, the FWF planning director, said in a release that the signs should help alleviate some confusion and keep tortoises safer.
“FWF saw a need to better educate our beach goers about co-exiting with gopher tortoises,” Gledhill said. “We wanted to make the process as least burdensome as possible for beach managers. We crowd sourced the funds through our membership to design, produce and deliver the signage. We donated 50 signs along the east coast and have requests for more.”