Every year, thousands of visitors venture to the sun-soaked shorelines of the Outer Banks of North Carolina in search of the perfect spot for rest and relaxation or the opportunity to partake in a wide array of recreational activities ranging from surfing to standup paddleboarding. However flip flop-clad vacationers hoping to spend a week making memories that will last a lifetime aren’t the only ones who travel hundreds of miles to spend time on the string of thin barrier islands that make up the so-called OBX.
Every year, from May until September, adult female sea turtles make the arduous journey from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the coast of North Carolina to dig a hole deep down in the sand and lay dozens of eggs under the cover of darkness. Despite these sea turtles’ efforts to tuck their nest safely above the high-tide line, the majority of baby sea turtles that hatch from these eggs don’t survive longer than their first few days of life at sea—if they make it from the safety of the sand to the ocean waves at all. Those sea turtles that are fortunate enough to survive the trek to the sea are also faced with an assortment of natural and manmade threats with the potential to eliminate their chances of ever reaching adulthood.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), all sea turtles found in U.S. waters are listed in the Endangered Species Act, which was signed on Dec. 28, 1973, and provides protections for species that are deemed threatened or endangered, as well as conservation of the habitats and ecosystems upon which they depend. From pollution, climate change and entanglement in debris to accidental capture by commercial fishing operations, strikes by vessels and destruction of their nesting and feeding habitats, a variety of threat pose serious risks for the survival of sea turtles today. These issues have caused a rapid decline in sea turtle populations since the 1930s, prompting conservationists to team up to help combat the threats these sea turtles face and to help increase their chances of survival.
Seven species of sea turtles have been identified, five of which can be found along the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks: the loggerhead, leatherback, green, Kemp’s ridley and hawksbill. When sea turtle nesting season begins on the OBX in May, female sea turtles come ashore to lay approximately 100-120 eggs the size of ping-pong balls in their nest, which is also called a “clutch.” The nest consists of a hole in the sand that is typically 1-2 feet in depth, and once the eggs have been laid, the sea turtle covers the hole and the eggs with sand before venturing back out to sea. Sea turtle nests are virtually invisible on the surface, with the turtle’s tracks from the nest to the water being the only way to tell any eggs were laid on the shore. Although female sea turtles only nest every other or every third year, during nesting years the turtle will return to the beach lay another nest of eggs every two weeks or so—typically resulting in a total of between four and seven nests per turtle.
Most nests of eggs incubate under the sand for a period of 60 days before they hatch, but if the nests are made during cooler weather or shady spots, the eggs can take as many as 100 days to hatch. Volunteers—such as those involved with the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.)—comb the coastline daily from May to September in search of turtle tracks that indicate the location of a new sea turtle nesting spot, and once a nest is found it is monitored closely throughout the duration of the incubation period. Wooden stakes and caution tape are used to create a square border around sea turtle nests on the Outer Banks to indicate their location and prevent them from being tampered with or driven over on four-wheel drive beaches. Volunteers keep a close eye on the nests, searching for signs of disturbance from people, animals and overwash, and watch for clues that the nest is about to hatch, or “boil.”
When a nest begins to hatch—which typically occurs during the evening hours—volunteers restrict access to a wide swath of shoreline from the dunes to the edge of the ocean to protect the hatchlings from beachgoers and other dangers. Nests can take several hours or even days to boil after the first signs of hatching occur, but once the process begins, all of the sea turtle hatchlings start their journey from the depths of the hole in the sand to the waves lapping at the shoreline within minutes of one another.
Volunteers stand by to ensure all the hatchlings successfully make it to the sea without any inference from predators—such as seagulls—and help guide any wayward hatchlings that head the wrong direction back toward the water. It is the hopes of volunteers and conservationists alike that once these sea turtles have all been safely escorted to the sea, some will survive to adulthood and return to the shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina someday to begin the process all over again—and that one day sea turtle populations will flourish and they will no longer find themselves an endangered species.