Earlier this month, volunteers with Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) stood on a Nags Head beach to ensure the about-to-hatch baby sea turtles in nest #1 safely made their way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Seventy-six little loggerheads scrambled out of the nest that night and flipper-flopped their way to the lapping surf.
In the days that followed, all that was left for volunteers to do was excavate the nest, count the hatched and un-hatched eggshells and ensure there weren’t any tiny turtle stragglers who hadn’t left the nest with their siblings.
“The total clutch size was 98, meaning the mother sea turtle laid 98 eggs,” says Dennis Pohl, president of N.E.S.T. “There were 87 hatched eggs and 18 un-hatched eggs, two taken by ghost crabs — we found the shells atop the nest earlier — and one little logger found during excavation, which was viewed by the crowd and then released by Marissa to begin its journey.”
Pohl says there are now 12 active nests on the Outer Banks, the most recent laid on Aug. 12. A summer nor’easter wiped out three nests by beach erosion.
In North Carolina, the nesting season is May 1 through September 1, part of which coincides with hurricane season, which is June 1 through Nov. 30 — and this year it has potential to be a rough season.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration recently increased the number of named storms it expects to develop in the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, warning that “the season has the potential to be extremely active.”
The area includes the waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA says there is a 60% chance of 2017 becoming an above-average hurricane season, due to warm water temperatures in the tropical and subtropical Atlantic Ocean and vanishing El Niño conditions.
Forecasters are now predicting 14- to 19 named storms, up from the 11- to 17 predicted in May. NOAA also is predicting 2-5 major hurricanes, which is an increase from May’s report of 2-4 major hurricanes. The updated forecast is above the Atlantic Basin’s 30-year historical average (1981-2010) of 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
That’s not good news for anyone, including nesting sea turtles.
Pohl says tropical storms and hurricanes can devastate nests, but since the 2017 sea turtle nesting season is better than three-quarters done, there’s not much that can be done, in terms of relocating nests to less vulnerable sites.
“The sea turtle nests hatchlings are developing at this point, so it’s not practical to move any nests,” Pohl says. “Moving the eggs will more than likely stop development of the hatchlings.”
The nonprofit organization does monitor the nests before any storm surge and immediately after, he says, “but we cannot control Mother Nature as to what beach erosion and sea turtle nest destruction may occur.”
There’s also not much N.E.S.T. can do to protect nests from human interference.
Well-intended and much-needed beach nourishment — which is the process of dumping or pumping sand from elsewhere onto an eroding shoreline to widen an eroding beach — has impacted sea turtles.
Last month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management reported that 65 sea turtles had accidentally been snagged by Great Lakes Dredge and Dock since the beach nourishment work began in May. That number is nearly four times the total number of turtles biologists had projected would be impacted by the operation from start to completion.
Pohl says, in the last few weeks, there has been a decline in the number of unintended captures, reported, “but there are factors that I believe relate to that. We have been told by government agencies that the sea turtles were attracted by cannonball jellyfish. Are those jellyfish still in the area of beach nourishment?
“There were three dredges initially used by Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, and now there is only one. I suspect that plays into the reduction of incidental captures.”
Pohl says with nesting season coming to a close, “it is my suspicion that the threatened and endangered sea turtles are heading away from the beach nourishment dredge areas.”