A record-breaking number of sea turtle nests have been laid on the Outer Banks beaches this summer.
The Outer Banks is considered the northernmost range for sea turtles, and from the Virginia line south to Ocracoke, sea turtle nests are breaking records this year.
The Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.), the National Park Service Outer Banks Group and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are all reporting their highest-ever number of sea turtle nests in their territories this summer, and experts say that conservation and education efforts likely play a role in the increasing numbers.
From the Virginia state line to Oregon Inlet, N.E.S.T. has marked 49 nests so far this season, up from the previous record of 26 nests during 2012. Of those nests, two are green turtles, two are Kemp’s Ridley and the rest are loggerheads.
“There’s a chance we may have a few more and we have them scattered throughout our coverage area,” says N.E.S.T. Program Coordinator Karen Clark.
On Pea Island as of August 22 there were 41 confirmed turtle nests and three possible nests.
“Forty-one is a new record for us at Pea Island,” says Becky Harrison, supervisory wildlife biologist at Pea Island and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges. “We’ll continue to monitor for new nests through Labor Day.”
Pea Island had 36 nests in 2015, and its previous record was 37 in 2013.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore has also experienced a record number of turtle nests this year, with 320 recorded so far. Last year, there were 289 nests in the seashore that encompasses roughly 70 miles of coastline from Bodie Island to Ocracoke. Of this year’s 320 nests, eight are green, one is a Kemp’s Ridley and 311 are loggerhead. In 2013 there were 254 nests, but in 2014 the numbers dropped to 124 nests.
With the totals from the three organizations, that equals 410 nests so far. Is there a reason for such an increase in nests along the Outer Banks?
“Awareness definitely contributes, but some reports tease out a number of factors that have positively come together to provide the banner year we’ve had,” says Clark, adding that it can be difficult to pinpoint a single factor and that there seems to be somewhat of a pattern to peak years.
It is difficult for conservationists to determine what factors are at play from year to year and why there has been an increase in nests this year.
“We don’t know if the increase is a result of conservation efforts, but conservation has certainly had a positive effect,” says Mark Dowdle, NPS Outer Banks Group deputy superintendent. “There is still a lot to be learned about sea turtles.”
NPS biologists have been patrolling the beaches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore to locate turtle nests, mark them and ensure their protection since the 1970s.
Counting nests doesn’t tell the whole story about sea turtle populations, says Matthew Godfrey, state sea turtle program coordinator for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
“We don’t know if greater protection equals greater numbers of female sea turtles,” says. “We hope so. But we can’t say for sure.”
Godfrey said that because female sea turtles lay anywhere from four to seven nests a season and that number can fluctuate from year to year, it can’t be used to determine population size. “It’s difficult to determine whether the increase in nests indicate an increase in numbers or an increase in reproductive output,” he says.
The commission in 2010 initiated DNA research that could help provide answers, but Godfrey said that research is still in its infancy.
N.E.S.T. is a nonprofit group established in 1995 to protect and preserve habitats and migratory routes of sea turtles from the Virginia Line to Oregon Inlet, trains volunteers to identify and mark turtle nests, responds to turtle strandings and monitors nests that area awaiting hatchlings.
Some turtles, Clark says, have already begun emerging from nests that were laid in May and June. Typically, turtles come on shore to nest May through August. Hatchlings emerge 55 days after the eggs are laid.
“We’ll be sitting well into October this year,” Clark says of a team of volunteers who “sit” by nests so that they can assist as the hatchlings emerge and make their way to the ocean.
Temperatures can influence the length of the nest, and with this summer’s heat, Clark estimates that some eggs will hatch before the nests reach the 55-day mark.
Female sea turtles nest every other year or every three years, according to N.E.S.T., and produce three to four nests each during a nesting season with 75 to 150 eggs that are the size of Ping-Pong balls.
N.E.S.T. has more than 200 trained volunteers to attend nests and provide other services that support the mission of the organization. It also has volunteers who operate five ATVs that patrol the beaches from May 1 to September 1 looking for turtle crawl tracks and marking off nests.
NPS biological technicians conduct a full patrol of the beaches every day for new sea turtle nests, Dowdle says. When found, the nests are marked by a 10-foot by 10-foot boundary with four posts and flagging around it, and the nests are actively monitored.
Around day 50, he says the park service expands protection around the nest to include silt fencing that creates a funnel down to the ocean to help the hatchlings find their way and avoid potential light pollution from nearby villages or the highway.
Once a nest has hatched, biologists and volunteers excavate the nest to document how many eggs hatched. During an excavation, the biologists will dig up the nest, count empty eggshells and collect unhatched eggs for research. Live hatchlings are occasionally found during these excavations. Nest excavations are an important way for groups to collect valuable data on sea turtle hatch and emergence success rates. This data is added to the turtle nesting databases for the seashore and the state of North Carolina. Visit seaturtle.org for more information and to track nesting activities at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and around the world.
It’s estimated that only one in every 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings survive to maturity, which is the reason for so much human intervention in ensuring that the baby sea turtles have the best chances for surviving, at least from the beach to the water’s edge.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
To volunteer with N.E.S.T. or for more information on how to help, visit nestonline.org.
The National Park Service allows the public to attend next excavations. Persons interested in finding out when and where a nest excavation or release of hatchlings will take place can call the excavation program hotline at 252-475-9629. Due to the unpredictability of sea turtle hatchings, notice of these excavations programs will usually occur only one day in advance, so check the hotline often.
Help the Turtles: Tips from N.E.S.T.
Don’t crowd around or inhibit a nesting sea turtle that is emerging from the ocean or returning after nesting.
Don’t shine lights on or around the turtle. It may cause her to abandon her effort to nest. Do not take pictures with a flash and keep your distance.
Turn off all ocean-facing lights around hatching events to prevent turtle hatchlings from heading toward the lights rather than the ocean.
Sea turtles’ diets consist of mollusks, sponges, crabs, squid and jellyfish. Plastic bags and balloons look like squid or jellyfish to turtles so be careful that bags or balloons do not get into the water.