NEST: A Few Folks Making a Big Difference
BY SARAH ALLMAN
is not often that such a small network of volunteers is able to make
such a large impact. However, an organization based out of an
unassuming building on the back road in Buxton is doing just that.
NEST, or the Network
for Endangered Sea Turtles, plays a major role in the recovery of
endangered sea turtle populations all along the East Coast. While the
National Park Service and NEST in Nags Head monitor turtle hatchlings,
NEST on Hatteras Island has more to do with the adult reproducing
turtles which are so imperative to sustaining struggling sea turtle
The program began when
Frank Welles, NEST volunteer coordinator for Hatteras and Ocracoke
Islands, happened to wander upon a helpless turtle while walking on his
soundside property one day. Since then, Frank and about a dozen other
committed volunteers have dedicated their time to seeking out injured
turtles from Hatteras village to Avon.
As summer turns to
fall, sea turtles begin migrating their way to warmer waters
instinctually. However, if the weather stays warm for an extended
period of time, the turtles are likely to stay put, leaving them at
risk of injury or even death. Because turtles are cold-blooded animals,
a sudden shift in temperature below 50 degrees prevents these
unsuspecting animals from being able to swim. This is when Frank and
his team make the trek into the cold to rescue stranded and
The north and northwest
winds of the winter blow cold-stunned turtles right onto the shores of
the sound where faithful volunteers find them and bring them to NEST’s
staging site on Hatteras Island, located right behind the soccer field
on the back road in Buxton.
Because any healthy turtle is too quick to catch,
the best way to tell if a turtle is sick, injured, or even deceased for
NEST volunteers is to try to catch it. Once turtles arrive at the
staging site, they get warmed up, go through a series of measurements,
and receive an identifying label and microchip. NEST volunteers from up
the beach record critical details, all of which get put into an
international database to the benefit of researchers around the world.
The sick turtles are then sent to a rehab exhibit called the STAR
center in Manteo run by NEST volunteers. The exhibit is “basically an
emergency room for turtles,” says Frank. As soon as turtles are well
and warm, usually after a week or two, STAR releases them into the Gulf
Stream where it stays around 70 degrees year round.
There are three species of endangered sea turtles
which wash up on the shores of Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands: Green,
Loggerhead, and Kemps Ridley. If Greens are the most commonly found,
Loggerheads are the hardest to miss because they average 100 pounds.
Volunteers must use a special harness to carry this species and
typically at least two volunteers are required to carry the harness.
Aside from their massive size, loggerheads are also known for their
dangerously sharp claws and fierce bite so volunteers must be
especially careful around this species.
NEST on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands save about
100 turtles per year. Because of NEST’s dedicated volunteers, Greens,
Loggerheads, and Kemp Ridleys are further along on the road to
recovery. Coupled with the ban on egg harvesting, NEST and other
volunteer groups along the East Coast have helped stabilize these
populations of sea turtles. Just last year, Green hatchlings were
reclassified from endangered to threatened.
With the threat of climate change, however, both
the sea turtle populations and weather patterns are impossible to
predict from year to year. Just two years ago, Frank and his team
experienced a massive stranding event in which they rescued over 600
turtles in just one month. There is no telling what this season will be
like, but one thing is for sure: NEST could use more volunteers. While
middle school students patrol the grounds around the Cape Hatteras
Secondary School, there are currently no volunteers located in the
To get involved, please contact Frank Welles at
252-995-2417. All volunteers must go through training and must be 18
years or older unless accompanied by an adult. Training sessions are
set to begin sometime in September or October, and all take place at
the NEST staging site in Buxton.
For anyone that just happens to be out on the
sound this winter, make sure to keep an eye out for sick or injured
turtles. It is safe to pick them up, and the faster they get processed
at the staging site and sent to the star center, the better. However,
heed Frank’s warning: “if you find one, you will be addicted.”