It 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 populations.
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 cold-stunned turtles.
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 tri-village area.
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.”