ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Florida, sea turtles are making a comeback. The green turtle is leading the way. It's a species that a few decades ago was close to disappearing from the state, and the scope of its recovery is virtually unprecedented for an endangered species in the United States. As Amy Green of member station WMFE reports, the gains are most apparent at a refuge on Florida's east coast. It's the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Melbourne Beach, and it's one of the most significant sea turtle nesting sites in the world.
AMY GREEN, BYLINE: A sea turtle emerges from the waves alone, in darkness. At 3 feet long and 300 pounds, her barnacle-encrusted body is cumbersome on land, accustomed to weightlessness.
HEATHER STAPLETON: They look like an ancient dark behemoth.
GREEN: That's Heather Stapleton of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, a research and conservation organization for the reptiles that are as old as dinosaurs.
STAPLETON: She comes up out of the surf, and she's there. She lifts her head up a couple of times, usually, in the air to take breaths and kind of feel her way around.
GREEN: She finds a nesting site well above the tide. Her breathing is labored as her flippers fling sand over her eggs, concealing them from predators during their two-month incubation. The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1991 to preserve this 20-mile beach on Florida's east coast for nesting sea turtles like this one. It's working.
LOU EHRHART: As a scientist, I have to be a little bit careful about how I throw the word miracle around, but yes, I agree that, in this case, it is really quite extraordinary.
GREEN: Lou Ehrhart is a University of Central Florida researcher who has counted sea turtle nests in this refuge since the mid-'80s. He says the green turtle's recovery is especially astounding.
EHRHART: In those first three years, we had 30 or 40 green turtle nests, and the summer before last, we had 11,840. That's just unheard of.
GREEN: Statewide, sea turtles are thriving. Nearly all of the nation's sea turtle nests are here in Florida. Most credit the Endangered Species Act, which brought sea turtles under protection in 1978. Sea turtles don't begin reproducing until their early 20s. That's why researchers thinks their populations multiply every couple of decades and why we're seeing a boom now.
Ehrhart also points to state protections of Florida beaches aimed at discouraging development and preserving them for nesting. This is important because while sea turtles can migrate thousands of miles, they almost always return to the same beach to nest.
Sea turtles still face many hurdles. In the United States, all sea turtles remain threatened or endangered. In the Pacific Ocean, leatherback populations are plunging. Back at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, this nesting sea turtle is disappearing into the waves.
STAPLETON: Yeah, now she's going faster.
GREEN: Oh, such relief for her to be floating and weightless again.
She might nest five more times during the summer, laying nearly a thousand eggs. But most baby sea turtles never reach adulthood because of predators and other dangers like dehydration under the sun. She never will know what becomes of them because sea turtles never come back to their nests. For NPR News, I'm Amy Green in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.