A baby boom of sea turtles on the North Carolina coast
By TERI SAYLOR
Coastal Review Online
On a damp August evening at the beach in Emerald Isle, a lull between
downpours brought a group of men, women and children to the base of a
dune marked off with bright pink plastic strips tied to four wooden
nights earlier, a sea turtle nest had hatched, sending a flood of baby
turtles boiling up to the sand’s surface for their slow trek to the sea.
dozen volunteers with the Emerald Isle Sea Turtle Project and about 50
spectators gathered to excavate the nest, eager to see how many eggs
were inside and hoping to find more live hatchlings.
Marsha Horner and Louise Ehrenkaufer dug into the nest with hands clad
in blue rubber gloves, spectators celebrated and softly cheered for
five little ones that had not made their way out of the nest when their
brothers and sisters hatched earlier in the week.
Ehrenkaufer retrieved the hatchlings while Horner counted 81 empty shells.
A family vacationing from Virginia had been on the beach at 11 p.m. the night the eggs hatched.
baby turtles were very cute,” said Maggie Roberts of Alexandria, Va.
“They scooted along the sand and used their little flippers to go and
go. When they first hit the water, they tumbled over in the waves, but
they figured it all out.”
Adams of Norfolk, Va., who had volunteered to count the tiny creatures
as they came out of their nest, could barely keep up with them. “It was
amazing,” she said. “I watched them bubble up, and counted them as they
moved down to the ocean.”
Adams, Roberts and other family members had returned for the nest excavation.
dug a smooth, shallow trench in the sand to make a path from the nest
down to the ocean, a distance of about 100 feet.
spectators leaned in close for a glimpse or to take photos with their
phones as the turtles made their slow journey to the sea, their tiny
flippers seeking traction and their little backsides sashaying back and
The entire turtle parade took about 20 minutes.
turtles laid 30 nests on Emerald Isle this season. The town on the
western end of Bogue Banks is one of 21 sea turtle protection programs
along the 330 miles of North Carolina’s beaches.
Godfrey, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and
director of the state’s Sea Turtle Project, reports the most common
nesting species is the loggerhead, but green turtles, leatherbacks and
a few Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle nests have been recorded on North
Carolina’s beaches this year.
species of sea turtles in U.S. waters are listed as threatened or
endangered by the U.S. Endangered Species Act,” Godfrey stated in an
email. “The nest monitoring and protection project in North Carolina
are part of this recovery process with the aim of boosting numbers so
they are no longer threatened or endangered.”
turtles have a strong survival instinct, but few make it to adulthood.
Habitat loss, pollution, climate change, boat strikes and fishing
mishaps are the turtles’ greatest threats. Hatchlings are the most
“They are the bottom link of the food chain,” said Emerald Isle volunteer Lois Craig. “Their survival rate is not good.”
they are able to make it to the ocean without falling prey to a bird,
fox or other predator, baby turtles must swim at least 30 miles on a
journey lasting several days to reach the Sargasso Sea, where they live
in thick grass until they grow into 3-year-old juveniles. They start
reproducing when they are about 25 years old.
females return to the general region where they were hatchlings to lay
their eggs, according to Godfrey. Turtles lay an average of four nests
in a season, containing around 100 eggs each, and the eggs incubate for
about 50 days.
Record Number of Nests
Some beaches up and down North Carolina’s coast are seeing record numbers of nests this season.
have found 227 nests so far this season, and we still have a few more
weeks of nesting so we might see more,” said Jon Altman, a biologist
with the Cape Lookout National Seashore. “This is the second-highest
number of nests on our seashore in 22 years of keeping data.”
Cape Lookout recorded 242 nests in 1999. Officials counted 157 nests in 2010 and in 2011.
can’t totally explain the numbers,” Altman said. “Sea turtles are still
mysterious to us. It takes them 30 years to reach maturity and some
females don’t nest every year.”
Experts speculate the rise in numbers is due to the recent mild winters.
thinks another factor may be new regulations that require shrimp boats
to install turtle excluder devices on their nets to keep the creatures
from getting entangled.
theory, if more turtles are surviving the shrimpers, we should have
more turtles, but it will take more time to determine that,” he said.
the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the turtle population sharply
increased this year. Wildlife biologist Britta Muiznieks acknowledged
it is hard to pinpoint why turtles laid 222 nests this season, compared
to 147 in 2011 and 153 in 2010.
was a poor year, with just 43 nests, total, but since then, the numbers
have steadily increased,” she said. “We have seen a drastic
improvement, but it is really hard to say why.”
She noted fewer turtle strandings this year too.
Tomczik, a park ranger at Hammocks Beach State Park, headed out on a
bright Sunday morning to excavate nests on the park’s Bear Island with
Bobbie and Duane Jastremski.
summer interns patrol the beach looking for mama turtles or their crawl
marks. You can’t miss them. They look like big tractor tracks where
their flippers dig deep into the sand,” Tomczik said.
Bear Island had 25 nests this season compared to 37 nests in 2011 and 19 in 2010.
Bear Island Turtles
Bear Island nest targeted for excavation was easy to spot. A
shallow hole punctuated a marker that had been placed when the nest was
discovered earlier in the summer.
tides and heavy winds had added nearly a foot of sand to a nest that
should have been no more than 24 inches deep. Tomczik lay face down on
the beach and reached in as far as she could to pull empty shells out.
Bobbie Jastremski counted. The team retrieved 90 empty shells,
one egg that did not hatch and a dead hatchling.
excavation on the island yielded 106 eggs that never hatched. Tomszik
blamed higher than usual tides that packed the sand and created
in North Carolina the emergence success of all nests is around 65
percent,” Godfrey said. “In years with intense hurricane and storm
activity, it can be lower, and in calm years, it can be higher.”
Meyer, who directs the Topsail Island Sea Turtle Nesting Program, said
this year appears to have been a good one for North Carolina, but just
average for her area.
was not a banner year for us,” she said. “Over the past couple of
years, we have had more than 100 nests. This year we had 82.”
N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission started keeping records in 1997,
according to Godfrey, and has posted statistics from 25 nesting areas
on its website. While those records are incomplete before 2010, the
numbers indicate a slight uptick statewide over the last three years,
with 883 nests recorded in 2010, 967 nests in 2011 and 1,087 in 2012.
to maturity (for sea turtles) is around 40 years, and we wouldn’t
expect to see our impact on nest protection in the nesting population
for several decades,” Godfrey said. “Bottom line, it is too early to
tell if the nest protection efforts are helping.”
Adams, the vacationer who helped count the Emerald Isle hatchlings was
excited about her role in helping the babies complete their journey to
the sea. “I felt like I was sending my kids off to college,” she said.
“This was not on my bucket list before, but I just put it there and
crossed it off.”
the sun set at Emerald Isle, it started raining, and the crowd
dispersed. The volunteers covered the nest, burying the egg shells and
they took down the barriers. Their job was done.
they walked away, they left no sign that anything exciting had happened
on this spot. But if you looked closely at the sand where the tide was
beginning to come in, you could still make out tiny faint turtle tracks
disappearing into the sea foam.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)