How a trip to the beach turns into a sea turtle education
By JOY CRIST
a recent Monday afternoon at the Sandy Bay beach access – a spot where
sunbathing and swimming are typically the order of the day – a group of
beach-goers were surprised when they were approached by a gentleman in
uniform who happened to be carrying around a sea turtle skull.
It was certainly an unusual encounter for the crowd at the semi-popular
beach that’s located just north of Hatteras village, but within about
five to 10 minutes, the man had drummed up about 35 to 40 people who
followed him and his uniformed colleagues to the outskirts of a thin
As it turns out, the man with the sea turtle skull was Brian Winnett of
the National Park Service, and he and his three-person crew – which
included lead biological science technician William Thompson – were
there to excavate a recently hatched turtle nest.
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is having a record-breaking year
for sea turtle nests, and as more and more nests start to hatch, the
National Park Service has set up an excavation program hotline at
252-475-9629 where the public can learn more about where and when an
excavation will take place.
The excavation is an opportunity for people to see the discarded sea
turtle eggs up-close, take a peek at the tiny tracks that trickle into
the ocean wash, and sometimes even see a live hatchling or two which
-- for whatever reason -- were unable to make the initial run to
When it’s at an area that’s easy to access – like the old Cape Hatteras
Lighthouse site or another beach with ample public parking – the
excavation is publically announced so that people can stop by and get
an insider’s perspective.
But when it’s in a slightly more remote location, like this particular
beach between Frisco and Hatteras, it’s simply a matter of being in the
right place at the right time.
“We try to regularly do the formal [public excavations],” says Winnett,
“but so far they’ve been limited to day use areas – like the Old
Lighthouse Beach or Coquina Beach.... But if we have the opportunity,
and people are available on the beach 15 minutes or so before we do the
excavation, we try to drum up interest.”
The ensuing experience is an impromptu presentation that sometimes,
like on this afternoon, tends to draw quite the crowd, and that starts
with the NPS rangers approaching people on the beach to tell them that
a potential opportunity to see sea turtle eggs – and maybe even live
sea turtles – is just a few minutes and a few yards away.
“Basically we go around, and let people on the beach know what’s
happening. That way, people can see first-hand how the Park Service
operates, and see what this is all about,” says Winnett, indicating the
small roped-off closure that’s immediately torn down after the
excavation ends. “It gives us an opportunity to do a little talk about
what we’re doing, and how we protect the sea turtles. And a lot of
times, there are live hatchlings, and that’s an opportunity for people
them up-close. This is the first one out of a handful [of nests] that I’ve been to where there weren’t live hatchlings.”
William Thompson works in the sand as he explains the nesting process
to an engaged crowd who have cell phone cameras in hand. Within 30
minutes or so, the nest has been fully examined, and although here are
no live hatchlings present, there are a few unfertilized eggs that
Thompson breaks open and shows to the crowd. Several have been
semi-cooked due to the heat, and while there’s a slight disappointment
that no live hatchlings were uncovered – which would have been
transferred to the red cooler container that the NPS crew has on hand –
the overall story of the sea turtles, and the first-hand glimpse of
turtle eggs, is nothing short of impressive.
Frank Welles, Freve Pace, and Olie Bedell – three volunteers who sat at
the nesting site along with Amy Metting-Galetar and a few other
volunteers – were also present for the excavation, and affirmed that
seeing a couple of live hatchlings after the hatch was always a
possibility, but never a guarantee.
“Often there’s live babies in there, even though we didn’t have any
today,” says Welles, indicating the former nest site. “At least half of
the time there’s one, two, or even three babies [still present] – and a
couple of times, the number has been up in the teens.”
“We all wanted to see a couple of [live hatchlings], but we’re also happy that we didn’t see any," says Pace.
“It’s the same as when we have to handle the turtles during the
hatching,” explains Welles. “We hate to handle them because you really
don’t want to have to be involved, but at the same time, we also love
to do it because we actually have a chance to pick them up.”
The remnants of this particular nest shows that this nest resulted in
115 hatched eggs out of 127 total. It included two deceased hatchlings,
as well as five unfertilized eggs. This info is written down in the log
book, as well as shared with the crowd on site.
“So it’s about 90 percent [success rate],” says Thompson to the crowd, “And that’s a pretty good number.”
After the 30-minute or so presentation - which includes the actual
excavation of the nest – the NPS crew answers questions and chats with
people for a few minutes, and then the crowd goes back to their
regularly scheduled afternoon of enjoying the beach, while the NPS
staff members take down the former turtle nest enclosure and leave.
Ten minutes after the NPS crew departs, a couple of new groups arrive
on the beach and set up umbrellas and chairs on the now vacant spot
along the shoreline. And any indications that the site was a sea turtle
nest enclosure just an hour before – with the exception of the still
subtle hatchling tracks along the beach – have completely disappeared.
But the folks who were at the scene, and who were lured by the
uniformed crew to see what was happening, won’t soon forget this
otherwise nondescript Monday afternoon.
“This is really incredible,” says one beach-goer from Virginia. “I didn’t expect to see this when we went to the beach today!”
Volunteers are always needed to help with the sea turtle nest sitting,
and volunteer opportunities will come in the fall, as well as for the
2017 summer season.
And in the meantime, visitors should keep an eye out for crowds
gathered along the distinctive black barriers along the beach – chances
are, it’s another impromptu sea turtle presentation that just happens
to coincide with a beach trip.
“By hearing about the sea turtles, and seeing this first-hand, [the
public] can appreciate the struggle – how tough it is for them to reach
adulthood, and then come back to the beach to lay eggs,” says Winnett.
“It’s definitely a numbers game.”