This is the time of the year when baby sea turtles begin to hatch and make their way toward the ocean. But not all of them will make it. This week on the Down East Journal, we visit the North Carolina Aquarium and talk about their efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and educate the public about this threatened reptile.
It’s sea turtle nesting season along the Carolina coast. Each summer, female sea turtles come ashore, lay their eggs under the sand, and then return into the deep blue ocean. An average of 775 nests are laid each nesting season in North Carolina, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Of the seven sea turtle species in the world, two are commonly found off the North Carolina coast, loggerhead and green sea turtles. With the nesting season upon us, aquarium staff are making room to take in injured and weak hatchlings. Director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Allen Monroe says volunteer groups will start patrolling the shoreline soon.
“And they will walk those each morning and look for those tracks that the female left as she came up on shore. They’ll then put up a barrier around the nest when it’s found to help it from being driven over by a vehicle, unintentionally being dug up by a small child trying to dig their way to China, and they’ll put tags on the nest to help educate visitors at the beach about what’s going on.”
Fifty to sixty days later, the volunteers return to the same site at night to in hopes of seeing the half dollar coin sized turtles emerge from the sand and follow the moon’s light toward the water.
“And the volunteer will sit there and wait patiently for that magical moment. They’re typically about 18 inches deep. And then all at once, kind of a coordinated effort, they’ll start scrambling up towards the surface and literally erupt in a boil. Sea turtle legs flapping back and forth, sand going everywhere, they make the mad dash to the ocean.
When sea turtles first hatch, their bodies are soft and flexible… an easy meal for raccoons, seagulls, and ghost crabs.
“In that mad dash to the beach, the ghost crabs are sitting there waiting and they see them and sometimes we’ll get a turtle that’s brought to us with an unfortunate encounter with a ghost crab, a flipper that’s been cut or torn, and they bring those animals here and we’ll be able to nurse them back to health.”
After all the sea turtles have hatched naturally, the volunteer excavates the nest and counts the number of eggs. Usually, they find small, weak hatchlings at the bottom of the nest.
“These are animals that under normal conditions they would just pass away. They are too weak to climb up through the sand by themselves. Whatever reason, they didn’t get the signal when everyone else left it was a group effort, that it was time to go.”
Monroe says they receive dozens of injured or weak sea turtles each nesting season. At the aquarium, they’re housed in modified glass aquariums until they’re ready to be released.
“Sea turtles are not the nicest of animals. They generally can’t be put together because they tend to chew on each other. So they’re given there little, it might be six inches by ten inches space until they get larger and then we’ll start moving some of the dividers and farming them out.”
Once the hatchlings are healthy, they are released. Just last week, the North Carolina Aquarium returned three juvenile sea turtles to the ocean. One came to the aquarium in August in 2011 from an excavated nest. The other two were rescued off Cape Lookout in April, a result of cold stunning, a condition much like hypothermia for humans.
“Those turtles that have not gotten the cue to the season that they’re supposed to migrate offshore to the Gulf Stream or further south to more warmer waters, they become trapped in near shore waters and become cold stunned. As cold blooded animals, the sea turtles can’t generate their own body temperature as the temperature drops down into the 50’s the turtle’s metabolism starts slowing way down, and pretty soon, they can’t swim, they can’t function anymore, and they just sort of wash up on beaches.”
The Aquarium and the Wildlife Resources Commission work together to provide care for cold-stunned turtles each year. Monroe says it’s not unusual to see upwards of thirty sea turtles at one time.
“We have a whole variety of flexible spaces that we can pull out and connect water to and drains and there’s hoses and water running everywhere and we try to make sure the animals get the best care possible.”
When a cold stunned sea turtle arrives at the North Carolina aquarium, it’s weighed, given a number, and gradually warmed up in an isolated tank.
“You don’t just throw a heat blanket on them or dunk them in warm water. It’s a process of slowly and very cautiously raising their body temperature. And also have to make sure they’re swimming properly. And so they maybe give them a few inches of water to start with, so they maintain their skin hydration and something to drink, as they get stronger, we’ll start giving them greater depths of water until they’re thrashing about and splashing that’s a good sign that they’re in good health.”
Monroe says cold stunned turtles are released as soon as they recover, usually in one to two months. During the cold winter and spring months, this requires boat transportation to the Gulf Stream where water temperatures are in the 70’s and 80’s.
“Sometimes we get animals that are in need of serious long term care. They may have had injuries when they were being pounded against the shore because they couldn’t swim anymore, or damage from a seagull or raccoon that took a bite out of them, and it could take four to six months to make sure those animals are healthy before they send them back out.”
Monroe says it’s their goal to return the sea turtles to the ocean as soon as possible. However, a small handful of turtles stay at the Aquarium for as many as two years, serving as ambassadors for their species.
“And those animals are getting a head start, they’re growing up to a larger size where they have a better chance of survival. But while they’re here at the aquarium, they are part of our educational programs and so we put them in our Sea Turtle Odyssey display where visitors can learn more about the plight of sea turtles in the wild, so they’re standing in to help remind visitors here to the Crystal Coast that there are animals besides us that need to be given space and the proper habitat.”
The loggerhead and green sea turtles common along our coast are protected under the Endangered Species Act. There are things you can do to minimize your impact on this threatened reptile, such as throwing away plastic bags and other trash that can easily be mistaken by a sea turtle as food. Also, filling in holes dug in the sand that the baby sea turtles could get trapped in. Residents in oceanfront beach homes should also try to minimize light pollution at night during the summer.
“When the sea turtles hatch and leave the nest at night, they look for that silvery reflection off the breaking waves as their cue as which way to go and head toward the ocean. And unfortunately, lights in parking lots, condominiums and such that we use can detract the turtles and have them go the wrong way.”
If you come across a stranded sea turtle or uncover a nest while you’re at the beach this summer, Monroe suggests contacting the Wildlife Resources Commission or the North Carolina Aquarium. You can see pictures of the sea turtles housed at the Aquarium – as well as photos of recovered sea turtles being released last week at Fort Macon . Just visit publicradioeast.org. I’m Jared Brumbaugh.