Outer Banks beaches are a thriving ecosystem. If you watch the damp sand quietly in late afternoons or early evenings, ghost crabs will pop out of air holes, scuttle along the beach and rebury themselves in the sand to avoid seabirds that feast on them.
Our beaches are also the nesting home to a number of sea turtles. Loggerheads and Greens are the most common and Kemp’s Ridleys show up occasionally. Three species, Olive Ridleys, Hawksbills and Leatherbacks, are exceedingly rare. For all sea turtles that visit the Outer Banks, North Carolina is the northern end of their nesting area, and all six species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Their nests are also protected by law, and with the nesting season in early to mid-summer that can cause some disruption. When a sea turtle nest is identified, the immediate area is cordoned off. As the eggs get closer to hatching additional space around the nest is marked off, and these buffer zones can create some minor inconvenience to those hoping to enjoy the beach.
One problem has been that no one knows exactly when the eggs are going to hatch, but that may be changing. The founder of the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, Eric Kaplan, has a background in computer programming and communications; and he felt there must be a way to determine if a nest is viable and to measure when eggs were about to hatch.
In 2013, Kaplan came to the conclusion that cell phone and Bluetooth technology could be used to transmit data from a nest. He believed over time a model could be developed that would predict when the nest would “boil,” a term used for a mass hatching of sea turtle eggs.
Eric approached the National Park Service with the concept, and they felt it was promising enough to pursue what has now become the Turtle Sense Program. Although Eric stepped away from managing the program, the Hatteras Island Ocean Center continues to be the sponsoring nonprofit for the project.
Not all of Eric’s concepts survived the test of time. For example, cell phone circuit boards were the initial device used, but they had to be individually programmed. During the initial phase, consisting of four to five nests, this board was reasonable. Once plans expanded to monitor from two to three dozen sites, it was determined it would not be practical.
From the beginning, the concept was that turtle eggs could be monitored for activity which would result in a reasonably accurate prediction of when they are going to hatch. The device placed in the nest is a ping pong ball. Eric once commented that these balls have the same look as sea turtle eggs, and that it would be entirely feasible to place micro-circuitry inside the ball, run wire to a transmitter and record the data. The ping pong balls are sealed with silicon after the circuitry is installed.
The sensors are detecting motion within the eggs. As the embryos get ready to emerge, they become very active within the egg—activity which is detected by the “ping pong” ball. The relevant question is, does it work?
The answer is yes, it certainly appears to be working. Twenty-nine sites were developed in 2015, and several were lost to storms, weather and malfunction. Of approximately 20 that made it through the summer, predictions of hatchings were consistently within one or two days of the event.
This program seems to be unique in the world of science. There have been monitoring programs of sea turtle nests, but according to Kaplan, never in this detail or by using the technology utilized by the Turtle Sense Program.