Ocracoke nature, flora & fauna

Sea turtles are nesting in record numbers

sea turtle crawl track

Sea turtle crawl tracks.

 Text and photos by Ruth Fordon

“Female sea turtles nest in cycles and this year is exceptional,” National Park Service Ranger Jocelyn Wright, lead biotech and coordinator for the Ocracoke sea turtle program, reported recently.

There have been years when reaching 35 nests was considered a good season. As of Aug. 13, there were 81 nests logged on the data records kept by the NPS. This means that eggs were located in the nest and it’s marked with signs as a nesting site and protected until it is hatched or reached the date where it is considered no longer viable (due to a variety of factors including infertile eggs or standing water over the nest that may cause the eggs to rot).

Ocracoke is known for producing more male sea turtles since the sex of the turtles is determined by the average daily temperature of the hatching grounds. Male turtles never return to land after hatching. Only the female comes ashore. During the nesting season here, usually mid-May through the end of August, an individual female sea turtle (primarily loggerhead) will crawl ashore to lay a nest of around 100 to 120 ping pong ball-size eggs every three to five weeks.

Sea turtle eggs.

Sea turtle eggs.

Current thinking, based on better data collection, indicates that females may return to the same beach but often will travel considerable distances up or down the coast before coming ashore to nest again. Usually, they crawl ashore at night to a location above the high tide line and their tracks will be evident to the turtle patrol who arrive at dawn to survey the Ocracoke coastline. If you find evidence of a nest on the beach, the park service turtle patrol will also see those turtle tracks. With the proliferation of nesting this year, it may be later in the morning before a nest can be marked with stakes.

Wright advises that anyone who encounters a sea turtle on the beach follow these rules: “Don’t get in front of, touch or interfere with her. Keep a safe distance and don’t take photos using a flash. The female turtle is following her natural instincts. Keep back and just let the process happen.”

The nesting ritual of the female sea turtle doesn’t always work out as expected. Sometimes she will dig around and not lay any eggs. This is called a false crawl. Sometimes she will make her nest below the high tide line and then the rangers will need to carefully relocate the nest to higher ground. Sometimes she will come after daybreak or might choose a spot high in the dunes for her nest. On rare occasions, the female may even become disoriented and head over the dunes to Highway 12.

Wright experienced that unfortunate event this year and enlisted a Good Samaritan passing bicyclist to detain ferry traffic and assist. “The two of us tried to herd, lift and slide her up the dunes until she could finally be wrangled back to the ocean side beach,” Wright said.

Sea turtle next closure sign.

Sea turtle next closure sign.

Once a nest is buried, the female sea turtle will never interact with that nest again. When the hatchlings emerge around two months later usually after dark, the young will be on their own, struggling to survive their two-day journey to the Gulf Stream. They find their way into the ocean from the nest by orienting to light, wave action and magnetic field. Beach campfires or artificial lights such as headlights will attract the hatchlings and can misdirect them.

There have been incidents where hatchlings from nests high in the dunes have ended up in the highway. Ghost crabs are also predators and will ambush the emerging hatchlings crawling on the beach. It has been estimated that one out of 1,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood.

Sea turtle aiming for Highway 12.

Sea turtle aiming for Highway 12.

Sea turtles breed at around the age of 25. Their average lifespan is at least 50 years. Three to five days after a nest has hatched, the NPS rangers will excavate the nest to determine hatching success and to count the remaining egg shells. Often times there are a couple of hatchlings still in the nest.

When possible, visitors can participate in a program hosted by the NPS rangers when a nest is opened after hatching has occurred.

Stop by the Ocracoke NPS Visitor Center across from the public boat docks in the village for more information about this event. Persons interested in finding out when and where an excavation will take place can also call the excavation program hotline at 252-475-9629.

The first excavation of the season took place in late July.  Due to the unpredictability of sea turtle hatchings, notice of these excavations programs will usually occur only one day in advance. So check the hotline often.

ruth passport photo

Ruth Fordon

Ruth Fordon is an Ocracoke resident and has been a volunteer with the sea turtle program for many years. She is a contributing writer for the Observer .