Sea Turtles on the Outer Banks
Soft sand and vast uncrowded beaches are just two reasons thousands of visitors pack their cars, load up their families and head to the Outer Banks. But, it is not just people who look to the Outer Banks as the perfect summertime haven.
From mid-May to mid-September sea turtles emerge from the surf and onto the beach for the purpose of laying eggs. This activity tends to be more active on the southern beaches, but if you’re vacationing on the Outer Banks from the southern island of Ocracoke and north to the town of Duck, you may experience egg laying or the birth of baby sea turtles.
The loggerhead is the most common, although three other species periodically appear—the leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley and the green sea turtle. Regardless of species, they are all considered threatened or endangered, so we should behave in a protective manner towards them.
Mother turtles usually come ashore at night. Very nearsighted, they react to light, so flashlights, flash photography or any other bright lights should be avoided. Typically the female will crawl to the edge of the dune line, dig a nest, deposit on average 110 eggs, push sand to cover them and crawl back to sea.
For anyone lucky enough to come across this miracle cycle of life, please never stand in front of them and remain at least 20 feet away from the nest. When on land sea turtles are easily disoriented, and unexplained movement in front of them could cause the turtle to journey back to the ocean.
Next, make a note of where the nest is located and contact N.E.S.T. (Network for Endangered Sea Turtles), an Outer Banks organization celebrating its 20th year protecting sea turtles. A volunteer will then arrive to mark the site, and the organization will monitor the nest. The N.E.S.T. phone number is (252) 441-8622.
There are additional ways to identify the location of a nest. When the female comes ashore her flippers leave a distinct pattern in the sand called a crawl. It is fairly easy to identify arrival and departure crawls by the direction of sand disturbance. If the high point of the flipper trail is toward the ocean, it’s an arrival crawl, caused by the turtle pushing the sand back and away from her as she makes her way to the nesting site.
Incubation for the eggs varies but averages is 55 days. Summer nesting behavior results in hatchlings generally emerging between August and October. The tumbling and rolling nature of hatchings is referred to as “sea turtle boil” when baby turtles emerge from their nest and instinctively bobble towards the surf.
Endangered and threatened species, sea turtles are afforded considerable protection, and harassing or injuring a sea turtle is illegal.
The organization N.E.S.T. has taken the lead in protecting sea turtle habitat and lives. Working in close cooperation with the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center was established at the aquarium. A state-of-the-art facility to treat injured sea turtles, the center is open to the public and provides abundant information about how sea turtles are treated when injured and what can be done to improve their environment.