Hey, who doesn’t love sea turtles, right? Imagine the excitement of walking along the beach and coming upon the tracks of a great momma turtle where she crawled ashore to lay her eggs. Imagine being part of a community so dedicated to protecting those eggs that they sit by that nest day and night until they hatch. Then imagine the joy of witnessing dozens of adorable fledgling sea turtles wriggling up out of the sand and skedaddling straight for the waves to begin lives in the Atlantic Ocean!
The volunteers of the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project [P.I.S.T.P.], headed by Nancy Busovne, do just that every summer in Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Fort Fisher. Since their mission is to work within federal and state guidelines “to ensure the preservation and protection of threatened and endangered sea turtles,” the volunteers of the P.I.S.T.P. are trained by experts in all phases of turtle care.
During nesting season (May 1 through August 31), these volunteers patrol the beach every morning at 6:00 AM for signs of a mother turtle having come ashore to dig a hole and lay her eggs. Once a site is identified, more P.I.S.T.P. volunteers put stakes around it to along with a sign to keep people and their pets away in order to protect the nest. The number of nests per season varies. 2015 was a banner year with 27 nests in Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Fort Fisher, while 22 were recorded in 2016. Who knows how many nests 2017 will see!
From the time a nest is identified, a team of trained volunteers is assigned to oversee and protect the nest. It takes approximately 50-60 days for the eggs to incubate in the sand. That may sound like a long time sitting and waiting, but veteran volunteers will happily tell you that means nesting team members forge deep friendships with each other that they carry for life.
These devoted turtle lovers set up watch by the nests and sit in the sun, wind, rain, and dark until the eggs hatch and the baby turtles dig their way to the surface—an event called a “boil” because of the way they seem to boil out of the sand, dozens at a time.
By now you’re craving to know what it looks like when fledgling sea turtles dig themselves out of the sand en masse, right? Dedicated P.I.S.T.P. volunteer and videographer Neal Dorow has many videos on YouTube just for you. This one shows a nest hatching, a nest excavation, and a mother sea turtle returning to the Atlantic after laying a new clutch of eggs—events that all happened in a single night. Watch here.
Because the sea turtle species that nest in the area are either threatened or endangered, every baby turtle is important. That’s why three days after the turtles started emerging from the sand, the nest is excavated by specially trained P.I.S.T.P. volunteers. They free any turtles that haven’t yet emerged and allow them to make their way to the ocean. The volunteers also count the eggs to get an accurate picture of how many hatched plus they record the percentage of eggs laid to the number hatched to collect information that helps determine the health of our sea turtle populations.
Learn More About Sea Turtles
If you and yours would like to learn more about sea turtles, you’re in luck. The Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project hosts popular “Turtle Talks” during the summer months. From June 7 through August 31, Turtle Talks are held every Monday at the Kure Beach Ocean Front Park pavilion at 7:00 PM and every Wednesday at Carolina Beach State Park in the visitor center at 7:00 PM. Admission is free, and it’s a great opportunity to ask questions of the folks who have first-hand experience with baby sea turtles. For more about the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project, visit their website.
Say you want to see a live sea turtle? Then head over to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher to meet “Shelldon,” the Aquarium’s resident green sea turtle who lives in the 235,000-gallon saltwater tank in the Cape Fear Shoals exhibit. Be sure to also check out the sea turtle exhibit to learn about sea turtles that visit the NC coast and get eye-to-eye with a real live Loggerhead.
How Visitors Can Help Ensure a Safe and Successful Nesting Season:
- If you see a sea turtle laying her eggs, do not approach her or make loud noises. If you frighten her she could abandon the nest and go back to the sea, releasing the rest of her eggs in the water where they’ll die.
- Do not shine lights near her (flashlight, flash photography, etc.) for the same reason.
- call 911. The operators are trained for this and will contact the local sea turtle volunteer agency to dispatch trained volunteers to the site.
- Do not divulge the location of a nesting turtle to anyone other than authorities.
Fun Sea Turtle Facts:
- Loggerhead turtles can weigh from 155-375 pounds.
- Mother Loggerheads nest at intervals of 2-4 years. During a nesting season, they can lay from 3 to 6 clutches of eggs. (Source)
- The most common sea turtle to Pleasure Island is the Loggerhead. A typical Loggerhead nest has around 120 eggs, each about the size of a ping-pong ball. (Source)
- It generally takes from 55-65 days for the eggs to hatch. (Source)
- From the time the babies hatch, it can take up to a week until they emerge from the sand. (Source)
- Baby sea turtles are only about 2-inches long. (Source)
- The temperature of the nest can determine the sex of the turtles. If it’s above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the hatchlings will be female. If it is below 82 degrees, the nest will produce males. Temperatures between the two result in a mix of male and females. (Source)
All images courtesy of Neal Dorow.