It’s sea turtle nesting season here on the North Carolina coast, and for the first time, we are up close and personal to learn all about it! Our town became part of the sea turtle nest monitoring and protection program in 1989. That makes this the 27th year of the program here on our island!
Sea turtle nesting season!
Loggerhead sea turtles are our most frequent visitors for nesting on the United States coast. The number of nests may vary greatly from year to year. Last season we had 101 nests, which gave us 7,562 hatchlings. As of the writing of this post, we have 89 nests this season but we may still top last year’s number. Nesting season begins in late April to early May, and although females usually stop laying in August, nests continue to hatch through October.
Our turtle patrol has a 4×4 golf cart they use to drive the entire beach every morning shortly after sunrise. The 4×4 was donated a local business a few years ago and made checking all those miles much easier than doing so by foot! Each new nest is marked after volunteers dig down to pinpoint the exact location and to make sure it was not a false crawl, which is when a turtle comes on shore but returns to the water without laying a nest. One egg from each nest is sent off for DNA testing, which provides info about things like how many individual females visit each year and how often they return. An average nest contains 120 – 140 or so eggs.
Some nests must be relocated if laid in a walkway or in an area prone to flooding at high tide. Thankfully, relocated nests have a good hatch rate. Explore the seaturtle.org website for detailed information, including those DNA results mentioned above.
On one of my morning runs, I saw the turtle patrol relocating a nest. You can see tracks made by mama turtle’s flippers in the photo below. One side is where she came up on the beach and the other is where she returned to water after she finished.
Sea turtles reach adulthood at about 25-30 years of age. Females lay up to 7 nests each year, but only do so every two to three years. Mama turtles lay at night, and may take up to two hours to dig her nest and lay her eggs. If you ever happen upon a mama turtle at work, you can watch but do not get close or shine lights on her. Sea turtles are federally protected. In fact, if beachfront homes refuse to turn off lights, which can confuse turtles about how to return to the water, homeowners may be fined up to $50,000.
In this photo (courtesy of the turtle patrol), a tired mama loggerhead makes her way back to the water early one morning in June.
The gender of baby turtles is determined by nest temperature. If the temperature is above 84.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the turtles will be female; below that temperature, they will be male. Males will never return to land. Females do so only for nesting.
After an average incubation period of 55 days, turtles hatch. They must break through the egg, and then dig out of the sand. They often emerge so quickly it’s called a “boil” because it looks like a pot boiling over. Baby turtles face so many predators that only 1 of every 1,000 hatchlings will ever reach adulthood.
Baby sea turtle hatchling; photo courtesy turtle volunteer (from a previous season)
Sea turtle nest parenting:
Nest parent volunteers are assigned to one nest and their job begins at day 50. At that time, nest parents set up a “runway” for the babies, then sit from sunset til 11PM or even later each night. Usually, the nest hatches within two weeks. Although nest parents’ biggest goal is getting hatchlings to the water, a big part of the job tends to be crowd control and answering visitors’ questions. I’ll share more about the particulars of nest parenting after we’ve actually done it.
How you can help:
Whether or not you live near the ocean, there are many ways you can help sea turtles. Some species are listed as threatened and some are critically endangered, but all need protection. (More info on the different species: turtletime.org.)
- Do not release helium balloons; they may end up in the ocean, and to a sea turtle, balloons and bags look like their favorite food: jellyfish.
Additionally, when visiting the beach:
- Pick up your trash, plus any you see on the beach.
- Knock down sand castles and fill in all holes before leaving for the day.
- Turn out lights when on/near the beach after sunset.
- If the beach allows dogs, be sure to leash them during turtle season so they don’t dig.