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Sea Turtles on the Outer Banks

Sea Turtles on the Outer Banks

Photo: Pinterest.com

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.

Photo: National Park Service

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.

Photo: Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.)

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.

Photo: Stephanie Banfield

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.”

Photo: Stephanie Banfield

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.

Photo: Stephanie Banfield

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.

Exploring the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island

If you’re searching for an escape from everyday life, look no further than the pristine beaches and secluded salt marshes of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nestled on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, this 13-mile-long stretch of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to nearly 400 species of wildlife ranging from migratory birds to endangered sea turtles. Whether you’re a local looking for a relaxing place to spend a day away or a visitor to the Outer Banks enjoying a family vacation for the week, taking a trip to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is an activity that should not be missed when visiting North Carolina’s barrier island paradise.

bonner bridge
Photo Credit: Stephanie Banfield

The roots of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge date back to 1937, when the United States government designated the section of Hatteras Island north of Rodanthe as an important breeding ground for area wildlife. Bordered by Oregon Inlet to the north and sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, Pea Island served as the perfect spot for birds migrating from colder regions to make a series of seasonal stops. The lush salt marshes of the region attracted an assortment of species ranging from ducks and swans to geese and egrets, making it a popular place among waterfowl hunters in the early-20th century, long before the Outer Banks became the bustling vacation destination it is today. When the land was deemed a wildlife refuge, hunting was no longer permitted, and huge congregations of birds began to take up permanent and seasonal residence along the soundside ponds and shallow salt flats.

Richmond Navigator
Photo Credit: Richmond Navigator

Today, visitors can take a trip over the Bonner Bridge from the southern edge of Nags Head to Hatteras Island, where they will be treated to beautiful stretches of unspoiled shorelines and opportunities for a wide array of recreational activities, including birdwatching, surfing, shelling, kayaking and standup paddleboarding. A small visitor center is located on the west side of NC Highway 12, about five miles south of the bridge. Here you’ll find a set of informational kiosks, public restrooms and a gift shop, as well as a staff of volunteers who can direct you to the various spots of the refuge you’d like to visit.

seashell seaside vacations
Photo Credit: Stephanie Banfield

Comprising 5,834 acres of land and over 25,000 acres of water, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a unique vacation destination that can be explored by foot or by sea and sound. Two nature trails wind their way through the refuge: the North Pond Trail and the Salt Flats Trail. Access to the half-mile-long North Pond Trail begins behind the visitor center and takes hikers around a series of ponds where they will witness various types of wildlife up close and personal. A wooden boardwalk allows visitors to cross what is known as “turtle pond,” a body of water full of freshwater turtles that can easily be spotted from the walkway above. This trail also features a double-decker observation tower and three observation decks—all of which contain mounted binoculars and interpretive panels—that give visitors a higher vantage point for viewing area wildlife and scenery.

birds over waves
Photo: Stephanie Banfield (Birds soaring over the Oriental, a shipwreck off the coast of Pea Island)

The Salt Flats Trail, which is situated at the northern end of North Pond, meanders along the top of the dike that separates North Pond and the Salt Flats area. This trail boasts an off-the-beaten-path type of terrain and is a bit more challenging to travel than the neighboring North Pond Trail. Hikers can expect to see various species of birds ranging from falcons to snowy egrets as well as more than two dozen species of reptiles. The trail ends with a scenic overlook station that gives visitors the chance to see a large cross-section of the soundside portion of the refuge. In the summer months, volunteers provide programs that discuss the various animals and habitats that comprise the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and are on hand to answer any questions visitors may have about the area.

pea island lifesaving station
Pea Island Lifesaving Station Photo: Stephanie Banfield

While the region is most commonly explored by foot, experiencing the refuge by canoe or kayak is an Outer Banks activity unlike any other.  The New Inlet boat ramp provides easy access to the shallow, brackish waters of the Pamlico Sound, where paddlers can put their vessel in the water and embark on a unique journey through the wide canals and salt marshes along the margins of the refuge. As you paddle through the calm waters of the sound, keep your eyes peeled for the hundreds of species of migratory birds and various species of amphibians that thrive within this saltwater habitat.

sea turtle 1
Photo Credit: Stephanie Banfield

Although both nature trails and the majority of wildlife are found on the sound side of the refuge, visitors to the Outer Banks shouldn’t skip a trip to the wide, natural beaches bordered by towering sand dunes on the eastern edge of the park. Stroll the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean and search for the assortment of incredible shells that wash up on these secluded stretches of sand, and be sure to keep a lookout beyond the breakers for pods of dolphins that can be found dancing in the surf. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is also known for attracting several species of sea turtles to its undeveloped and unpopulated shores. While loggerhead sea turtles are the most commonly found species to venture out of the sea and lay their eggs safely above the high tide line here, a handful of other species—including leatherback, green, Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill sea turtles—have also been spotted nesting within the confines of the wildlife refuge.

SeaTurtle-Orsulak-520x289 FWS
Photo Credit: FWS.gov

Whether you visit the Outer Banks in the middle of a cold winter or during the dog days of summer, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge—with its hundreds of diverse species and array of recreational opportunities to enjoy—offers something for everyone to enjoy during their time spent on the barrier islands of North Carolina.

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