St. Johns County moves to protect gopher tortoises

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – St. Johns County is warning beachgoers about turtles found near the shoreline. If you see a gopher tortoise, don't touch them and don't put them in the water.

The county has added signs to several beaches, telling people not to move gopher tortoises into the ocean.

Doing this will hurt them and could possibly kill them.

County leaders said the people who are doing this mean well and honestly believe they're helping because they see these animals, and think they belong in the water.

However, gopher tortoises don't swim and when they're taken into the ocean, they drown. The county said educating people about these animals will make a huge difference.

Gopher tortoises are among our most vulnerable wildlife.

"Gopher tortoises are mistaken for sea turtles. People will pick them up and place them into the ocean, when they are in fact, gopher tortoises and they belong in the dunes," said Tara Dodson, the environmental supervisor with St. Johns County.

Dodson estimates local authorities get around three to four calls a week on this exact issue. That's why these signs have been added to multiple St. Johns County beach access points.

A good way to protect these creatures is to simply know what to look for. Sea turtles swim, so naturally, they have flippers. Looking at gopher tortoises, they're land animals. So they have claws.

We spoke to several beachgoers, and gave them a side-by-side look at gopher tortoises and sea turtles.

While many could tell the difference right away, others said they can see where some might make a mistake.

"People might think they're doing good, but (they're) hurting the environment instead," said Marie Dunbar.

"I think people need to get educated. And figure out which is which," said Dori O'Brien, another beachgoer.

Dodson says consider this a good rule of thumb: if you aren't sure whether you should be moving an animal into the water, just don't do it.

"Nobody should place an animal back into the water, unless you get authority to do so," said Dodson. She wants to get a message out to beach-goers, if you come to the beach, build sand castles or dig holes, you need to refill the holes before leaving. She says there have been cases of tortoise hatchlings getting trapped inside.

If you see anyone putting these animals back into the ocean or hurting them in any way, call the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office dispatch number at 904-824-8304 or Florida Fish and Wildlife at 888-404-3922

About the Author:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.