We’re half way through the sea turtle nesting season along the North Carolina coast and biologists with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission are saying it could be another banner year.
Each morning, more than 1,000 volunteers – from Corolla to Sunset Beach- wake up at sunrise and take a stroll on the beach looking for signs of sea turtle nests. Tracks in the sand leading to the water and a depression where the eggs were laid and then covered up are signs that a sea turtle was in that spot just hours ago.
“When you walk up and you actually find one, it’s pretty great.”
Michelle Lamping has been doing the beach walks along Bogue Banks for 13 years now. She’s an aquarist at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
“Processing the nest is just opening up the nest cavity and verifying that it is a nest, so make sure there are eggs. We remove one egg for a DNA sample. And then we rope it off, we put a sign on it and that way the nest stays protected and we get a GPS so we know where it is. And we do all the data logging, that way we can keep track of how long it’s going to be there and where it’s at. And that way we know about when the nest is actually getting ready to emerge and that way we can do nest protections for the hatchlings when they’re ready to come out.”
You may have heard that female sea turtles return to the same beach to nest? Actually, they return to the same general region every year. And since sea turtles have multiple clutches each season, one that returns to nest in North Carolina may also nest in South Carolina and Georgia. Lamping says they’re able to track that using DNA samples collected from eggs. It gives them important information about each sea turtle’s preferred nesting sites from year to year as well as data on how many nests a sea turtle lays each season.
“So in our end of the beach, we have a couple of moms that without failure will come back every two to three years. Putting three or four nests, all putting them within a mile or two. And they’re pretty much like clockwork. And then we have a couple of visiting moms that come put a nest on our beach and then will go nest farther north or south of North Carolina or South Carolina, which is pretty cool to have a visiting mom come by and put a nest.”
There’s been an upward trend in the number of nesting sites along our coast. Last year, the Commission tallied a record breaking 1,650 nests, a 25 percent increase over 2015. So far this year, the numbers are strong. The State Wildlife Resources Commission’s Sea Turtle Project is reporting 741 loggerheads, Kemp’s Ridley and green sea turtle nests. Coastal Wildlife Biologist Sarah Finn.
“I’m not sure that we’ll top last year’s record, but it should be pretty good. There are some islands that are a little bit low, lower than they normally are. And some islands are higher than they normally are. It’s kind of inconsistent across the board but we’ll have a pretty good year this year.”
Along the North Carolina coast, there’s about 330 miles of ocean facing beaches that provide suitable habitat for sea turtles to nest. But some places are better than others. Cape Hatteras has the most nesting sites -144 - while Cape Lookout is not far behind with 126 nests. Finn says sea turtles prefer these large, undeveloped stretches of beach because they’re darker and more secluded.
“There’s just a wide area that the turtles have to choose from. And being undeveloped, we don’t get a lot of the sky glow from nearby cities that we do on other barrier islands and obviously they’re a little bit more difficult to access for the average person.”
Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach report eight nests each, while Pine Knoll Shores has seven, Salter Path/Indian Beach have three and Fort Macon has recorded two nests so far. Finn says an increasing number of nesting sites along our coast may be indicative of a recovering sea turtle population.
“It’s certainly something we like to see, an increase in the number of nest. What we’re trying to determine is to make sure that the turtles aren’t just laying more clutches, that we’re actually seeing an increase in the number of individuals. It’s still a little too soon to tell that piece just yet. We’ve been participating in a DNA study with South Carolina and Georgia for the past eight years so that’s helping us dive more deeply into that question.”
For now, this month is the peak of sea turtle nesting season and volunteers are out in full force walking the beaches identifying nests. Soon, they’ll be even busier protecting hatchlings. Aquarist Michelle Lamping says there’s three nests on Bogue Banks that could hatch as early as next week.
“My volunteers will start being out there July 19th. I think because the season has been so much colder, because it’s only been hot for a couple of days, so I think it’s going to take longer for the nest to incubate, maybe like the 22nd, 23rd weekend, we might have some action there. It might still be a little too early as well.”
Nesting season in North Carolina ends October 31st, but starts trailing off as temperatures cool in the autumn. If you encounter a sea turtle laying eggs or a fleet of tiny, half-dollar sized hatchlings emerging from a nest, keep your distance, turn out any lights, and quietly observe. Mothers can be easily disturbed when nesting and hatchlings can get disoriented by lights.
For more information on the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission's Sea Turtle Project, go to: http://www.seaturtle.org/groups/ncwrc/