July 13, 2016

Sea turtle nest sitters learn the ropes in training session


A crowded room of both seasoned and new volunteers turned out in Buxton for the first of two sea turtle nest watch training programs on Monday evening, July 11.

The Nest Watch Program is manned by community members and long-term vacationers who want to help protect, monitor, and inform the public about upcoming turtle nest hatchings.

But one of the biggest draws for many volunteers, besides the ability to provide essential help in protecting one of the island’s favorite part-time residents, is the real probability of seeing a sea turtle hatching up-close and personal.

The role of the nest sitter, among other things, is to monitor a sea turtle nest in the days and sometimes hours before the hatching begins. Sea turtles – primarily loggerheads – hurl themselves up onto the Hatteras and Ocracoke island shorelines every year, laying more than 100 eggs at a time. After they leave, usually within hours, the nest sits on the beach until a depression forms and it eventually “boils over” with hatchlings that are clawing their way to the surface.

From here, it’s a mad nighttime dash to the ocean for the hatchlings, who follow light from the sea to find their way.

It’s addicting when you see a nest boil,” says Lou Browning, a local wildlife rehabilitator who has been assisting with nest sittings for more than 20 years. “It’s a great experience, and turtles need all the help they can get.”

As it turns out, there are a lot of factors that can cause a sea turtle nest to require a little extra assistance, and, in turn, create an assortment of jobs for the volunteers.

Volunteers need to rake out the paths to remove ORV or foot traffic tracks and prepare a clear runway for the tiny hatchlings to reach the ocean and also need to be on hand if something goes awry.

Hatchlings are extremely sensitive to light and essentially find their way to the ocean through the light off the water. As a result, another extraneous light source can create mass confusion and can require a little outside, and primarily hands-off, intervention.

Lead biological science technician for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in Buxton, William Thompson, who supervises the program and who walked volunteers through the process during the training session, explained this mass confusion in detail, identifying the two prospective scenarios as “disorientation” and “misorientation.”

During a “misorientation,” sea turtles flock, typically as a herd and in one general direction, to a singular misleading light source – like a porch light on a beach house. During a “disorientation,” the sea hatchlings scatter in all directions.

In either case, it’s up to the volunteer to shine a spotlight on the ocean to indicate the right way --similar to a crossing guard -- or, in the absolute worst case scenario, carefully corral the misguided hatchlings and transport them to the ocean using a bucket lightly filled with sand.

And in the days and hours leading up to a hatching, volunteers also try their best to remove any light sources that could potentially lead to a problem, whether it’s a stray flashlight or glow stick along the beach, or an oceanfront home with a gleaming light on the deck.

Just approach [the people] nicely, and talk about the turtles, and most everyone will respond,” said Thompson during the session. “And if you can, talk to the kids! They get excited about the hatchlings, and will share what they learned with their parents.”

One seasoned volunteer agreed that being polite works most all of the time and shared a particular instance when she approached a family about their porch light.

I had a lady once tell me ‘Oh, no problem! I love turtles – my grandma used to make soup with them!’”

Public education and presence are actually a big part of the turtle nest sitting gig, since curious onlookers are often in the vicinity when a turtle nest hatches, and they want to admire the incredible show as well. And the turtle sitters in the crowd at Monday’s meeting agreed that when they explained what was happening and how light affected the hatch, the onlookers were both grateful for the info and happy to oblige.

What it boils down to is to treat everyone with respect,” explained Thompson, “and they will most likely respect you as well.”

Volunteers have the option to make a “guest viewing area” behind the nest, but can also opt not to based on factors like where the sea turtle nest is located. For example, if a turtle nest is located back in the dunes, then there’s not much leeway for extra spectators without trampling the dune system. Another concern, as several volunteers pointed out, is cell phones. The flash of a single cell phone camera can lead an otherwise organized turtle procession into the ocean into a chaotic disorientation scenario.

If you’re nervous about having people very close to the nest site, you don’t have to put [viewing areas] in,” assured Thompson.

In addition to basic procedures and protocol, the training session also touched on a couple new topics for the 2016 season – namely, the new tasks and considerations that were connected with the December 2015 legislative changes to the off-road vehicle plan.

According to newly enacted changes to buffer distances around nests, if a sea turtle nest blocks access from one ORV area to another and no way around the nest exists, driving may be permitted in front of the nest if resources are in place to monitor nests and remove the ruts.

And because of the team of volunteers who are prepared to spend several hours raking out the tracks after the ORVs have exited the area, these “corridors” can remain open throughout the sea turtle nesting season.

Browning, who assisted the NPS with this practice last year, noted that raking out multiple lanes of vehicle tracks from the low tide line to the nesting closure was an incredibly time-consuming venture, and Thompson said that the NPS was going to try to narrow these corridors in order to make cleaning the area feasible, while essentially keeping an area open for ORVs. “[Our goal is] to keep it down to one to two lanes [in these areas], and hopefully that cuts down the amount of raking that needs to be done,” said Thompson.

And while the prospect of raking an ORV site for several nights in a row, or potentially waiting days at a time for a nest to hatch, seems like quite an undertaking, for volunteers, it’s not just a labor of love – it’s a gateway to a rare Hatteras Island experience that’s simply unparalleled.

I did this last year, and I loved it,” said one volunteer. “Just seeing the baby turtles, being at the beach at night watching the sky, and being next to the ocean…. It’s incredible.”

The Clabough family, which included 12-year-old Whitaker who asked several insightful questions during the question-and-answer session concurred. The Claboughs live in Frisco during the summer months, and Erin Clabough – Whitaker’s mom and a biology professor who is currently working on a turtle sensor project with the Hatteras Island Ocean Center – explained the allure.

Two of her children participated last year in the Nest Watch Program, and this year, all four kids are joining in. “As soon as they saw the first hatch, they went bonkers,” she said. “…They were very excited to do it [again] this year.”

While the volunteers in attendance included old pros like Whitaker, (who is now in his second or third year), there were also some newcomers in the crowd, which included NPS interpreters and Hatteras Island Ocean Center interns who were volunteering their own time.

This gives us more to talk about with our visitors, since we’re at the forefront,” explained NPS interpreter Kate Owen as to why she was volunteering.

Aleigha Alexander and Maria Perrett, who attend college in Kansas and who are part of a team of 15 volunteers from the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, agreed.

This is perfectly in-line with what we do at the Ocean Center,” said Perrett. “…We all love sea turtles [and we love] this opportunity to see a nest hatch.”

After a breakdown of the program, potential hazards, and common sense instruction, the volunteers filled out forms and contact sheets that would eventually grant them access to the Nest Watch website – a nicely organized database of essential information, nests that need to be monitored, and other imperative info.

Our first nest is 55 days old and will be expanded on 7/23/16,” said Thompson. When asked how many nests were “active” at any given time, he noted that “The total number of nests that need to be watched on any given night is five to eight during peak season.”

It’s a time commitment to be sure. And attendees swapped stories about the times that they “sat” on nests for days at a time, only to have them hatch on the one night that they decided to take a day off.

Or,” one attendee added, “you’ve been sitting for days and hours at a time, and a thunderstorm comes up, and you run to your car. And then, when you come back an hour later, they’re all gone.”

But the inevitable potential reward for being a nest sitter -- as well as the ability to make a descernible difference -- far outweighs the potential time commitment for many new and long-term volunteers.

Education is the most important. This is our opportunity to cause awareness with folks about disorientation, light pollution, and [similar factors],” said Thompson. “… And hopefully you guys are all going to see [a hatching] first hand.”

And the ultimate goal of a volunteer is not to change, interfere, or disturb the hatching process – it’s simply to watch, record, and make reasonable efforts to ensure that nature can take its course.

All while enjoying one of the most incredible nature shows that Hatteras and Ocracoke islands have to offer.

We’re not trying to manipulate Mother Nature,” said Browning during the meeting. “We’re trying to make up for the problem that we caused.”


The NPS will be holding a second sea turtle nest sitting/raking training on Monday, July 18, from 6 - 8 p.m. at the Old Weather Bureau Station, located right behind the 47730 Apartment Complex, Buxton Back Road, Buxton, NC 27920.To become a nest sitter, you must come to the training, even if you have been to one before from other years.

The nest sitting program is open to year-round residents, full-time summer residents, vacationers staying for one month or more, and any park employees. For those who do not meet these requirements, more possibilities for the 2017 season may be available, so stay tuned.


At the end of 2015, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore had a record 289 nests, which included 277 loggerhead sea turtles, 10 green turtles, two hawksbill turtles, and nine Kemp's ridley turtles.

To date this year, the NPS has recorded 181 sea turtle nests which includes 176 loggerhead turtles, two green turtles, one Kemp’s ridley turtle, and two “unknown” turtles.

The first nest is scheduled to be ready for hatching on or around July 23.


Click here to watch a video by volunteer nest sitter Liz Browning Fox of a nest boil on the South Beach in Frisco in August of last year.

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