It’s Sea Turtle Nesting Season and the Turtles have been coming ashore to lay their eggs. Nesting season on the North Carolina Coast lasts from Mid-May through August. Loggerhead turtles are the primary visitors to the North Carolina Coast, but occasionally a leatherback, a green sea turtle, or Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle will make its nest on a North Carolina Beach.
There are approximately 330 miles of ocean-facing sandy beaches in North Carolina that provide suitable nesting habitat for sea turtles.
Each nest contains approximately 120 eggs roughly the size of a ping pong ball. The female digs a chamber in the sand about 1-2 feet below the surface and once the eggs are deposited, she covers them up with sand. Except for the distinct track she has left in the sand, the nest is completely camouflaged.
A female turtle will return every 2 weeks or so to lay another nest of eggs. She may lay between 4-7 nests in one season. Once the water temperatures start to cool again in August, the females move on in search of food and a decent place to reside until it is time to nest again.
Typically, a female turtle nests every other or every 3rd year. In North Carolina, the majority are loggerheads, with a few green turtles and leatherbacks nesting each year. Once laid, the eggs are on their own. They incubate for approximately 60 days, but nests laid early in the season, in the shade of vegetation or buildings, or during cool weather could take up to 100 days.
Sea Turtle Protection Organizations
With the help of hundreds of Turtle Watch participants and volunteers, the entire NC coastline is monitored every morning from May through August in search of turtle tracks.
Since sea turtles can be very picky about where they lay their nests, it is common for a female to crawl up the beach only to return to the ocean without laying a nest if the site did not suit her, or if she was scared away. This is called a false crawl.
In order to verify that a nest is present and it is not just a false crawl, trained participants know how to “read” the markings left in the sand and know where to dig very carefully below the surface to find the nest. Once eggs are found, the nest is immediately covered back up. The area is protected using stakes and flagging tape and is identified with a sign. Some nests are covered with wire cages on beaches where predators like raccoons and foxes are a problem.
Usually, that is all that is needed to ensure the nest remains undisturbed. The nests are checked every day for signs of disturbance, as well as overwash from high tides.
Participants also check for signs that the nest is getting ready to hatch, usually nothing more than a distinct depression or hole in the sand.
Once ready to hatch, barriers are often constructed to decrease the chance of hatchlings getting stepped on, run over, or confused by lights. They take several days to hatch out and crawl to the surface of the sand. When ready, they break the surface and scramble to the sea. This usually occurs at night and is referred to as a boil. In most cases, hatchlings can make it to the sea without any assistance from humans.
Many participants gather around a hatching nest solely to marvel in the spectacle and share the experience with their fellow volunteers. On many occasions, passers-by will also join the group in hopes of witnessing the event. This provides a great opportunity to interact with the public and volunteers are usually willing to answer questions.
In the event that there are a lot of people on the beach when the nest hatches or the hatchlings become disoriented and crawl away from the sea into the dunes, it is very helpful to have knowledgeable volunteers on hand to keep the area clear or get the hatchlings headed in the right direction.
After the Boil
About 3 days after the hatching, volunteers with the sea turtle watch conduct an excavation, or inventory, of the nest. The nest will be filled with empty eggshells, and each shell must be counted. In addition, some underdeveloped eggs may be present. On occasion, there are a few hatchlings still at the bottom of the nest — ones that didn’t quite make it out with the others. Unfortunately, sometimes these hatchlings are dead, but often they are alive and just need assistance to get out of the nest chamber.
The nest inventory helps determine the success of the nest, both the hatching success (percentage of turtles that hatched from their eggs) and the emergence success (percentage of turtles that emerged from the nest un-aided by humans). These numbers as well as the total number of nests laid, and the number of false crawls help give biologists a glimpse at how the nesting population of turtles is faring.
What Can You Do To Help Sea Turtles?
Do Not Disturb If you see an adult sea turtle coming on shore, stay quiet, and keep your distance! Otherwise, she may get scared and go back into the ocean without nesting. They are an endangered species and it is a federal offense to harass them.
Turn Off All Flashlights Lights may scare or confuse the adult female and cause her to leave without nesting.
Lights Cause Hatchlings To Go In The Wrong Direction Please turn off all outside lights each night. Also if there are curtains or blinds use them so your indoor lights do not lead the hatchlings away from the ocean.
Never Pick Up A Hatchling It is critical that they crawl on their own. Do Not Disturb The Nest Area. Watch for the nest markers.
Stay Off Sand Dunes & Do Not Pick Sea Oats Sand dunes provide a critical habitat for sea turtles and help prevent flooding during times of extreme tides and storms. Foot traffic kills plants and severely damages the sand dunes.
Help Us Keep Our Beaches Clean Sea turtles may mistake a plastic bag or other forms of litter for a jellyfish (they eat them). All personal items and equipment must be removed from the beach each day, these items may trap a sea turtle.
Please Fill In All Holes On The Beach When Done Playing Holes can trap sea turtles and are a safety hazard to humans.
Keep Dogs On Leashes At All Times No dogs shall be permitted on the beach strand between the hours of 9:00 am and 6:00 pm during the period of Memorial Day through Labor Day but must be kept on a leash at all times..
No Fireworks Fireworks can scare off nesting sea turtles and leave behind trash that may be mistaken for food by marine wildlife. Also, unauthorized discharge of fireworks is not permitted per North Carolina state laws.
Please report all sightings of nesting turtles, dead turtles, unmarked nests, or crawls to: Oak Island Turtle Watch: 910-278-5518 or Oak Island Police Department: 910-278-5595
Check Out Some of Our Favorite Videos
Sea Turtles Hatching on Ocean Isle Beach
Sea turtle laying 209 eggs on nearby Bird Island
Sea Turtles Hatching in the Day Time at Emerald Isle, NC
Sea Turtle Boil on Holden Beach, NC