In August, we witnessed our first sea turtle nest excavation. After a sunset swim, Joseph and I joined a large crowd gathered around a protected nesting site as volunteers from Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project patiently dug to retrieve any eggs that had not yet hatched. The site and the path down to the water were cordoned off, and the path bore fresh tracks, like small tire treads, from the recently hatched nesting turtles who had already made their way to the ocean over the last few days.
The crowd was lively and curious, and as we walked around to get a closer view of the nest, we kept hearing the same questions. How many eggs were there? What type of turtle was nesting here? How many of them make it to adulthood?
After the event, during which four golf-ball sized eggs were excavated and examined, I talked to one of the volunteers to get the benefit of her first-hand experience. I learned that in North Carolina, the nesting season is from May to September. Loggerheads and green turtles–and occasionally leatherbacks and Kemp’s ridley turtles–nest on our beaches, which are at the extreme northern limits of their nesting grounds. Nesting sites are protected by state and federal law, and it is a crime to interfere with them. Turtles predate dinosaurs but face long odds: only 1 in approx. 1,000 to 10,000 turtles survives to adulthood, and turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until 30+ years of age.
Adult female sea turtles emerge from the water only to give birth once every 2-3 years (the males never come onto land as adults). After struggling up a moonlit beach and arduously digging a nest with their back flippers, the gravid turtle lays about 100 eggs over the course of a few hours and then returns to the water. The eggs incubate for approx. 60 days and the temperature of the sand determines the gender—warmer sands produce mostly female sea turtles, and the relatively cooler sands of North Carolina produce mostly males.
If you’ve spent any time at the beach you’ve probably seen the reminders, “Lights out from May-October” Reducing or eliminating artificial light is essential for the health and safety of both the mother and her brood. The birthing process and incubation are fraught with potential dangers. Nesting turtles are easily disoriented by artificial light, loud noises, and pets. If you see a nesting female, please keep a respectful distance (at least 30 feet) and remain quiet during her time on the beach. Turn off all flashlights, and do not use flash photography. (A fact that the volunteers had to constantly remind the over-eager crowd at the beach during the excavation.)
Hatchlings are also vulnerable to light—after emerging from the nest, they navigate by the light of the moon and the stars, finding their way to Atlantic by the soft reflection of the night skies on the water. Artificial light overwhelms these softer reflections and disorients hatchlings, causing them to crawl in the wrong direction and never reach the surf.
Sea turtles numbers have been in precipitous decline over the last century, and all of the turtle species nesting on our beaches are either classified as threatened or endangered. You can help sea turtles during the nesting season:
- Keep our beaches clean, pick up trash, and don’t leave any items on the beach at night
- Turn off outdoor lights, and shield indoor lights from shining on the beach at night
- Don’t use flashlights, fireworks or flash photography on the beach at night
- Refill any holes dug in the sand
- Report sea turtle activities, injuries or stranding to 910 612 3047