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The five sea turtles of the Outer Banks

Loggerhead turtle – Credit: NOAA Fisheries

This is a supplement to an earlier feature on the nesting success of sea turtles.

By Peter Vankevich

Worldwide, there are only seven species of sea turtles and five of them, with varying degrees of frequency, can be found in the waters and nesting onshore on the Outer Banks.

While North Carolina hosts a total of 22 species of turtles, the five sea turtles are different in size and shape from the others and that they spend their entire lives at sea, except for females that go onto land to lay eggs and then return immediately to sea.

Loggerhead  (Caretta caretta):

A rehabilitated loggerhead returns to the ocean. Photographed in 2018 by Peter Vankevich

Named for their large head, female loggerheads reach maturity at about 35 years of age. Every two to three years they mate in coastal waters and return to nest on a beach usually in the general area where they hatched themselves decades earlier.

Loggerheads nest at intervals of two to four years and lay between three to six nests per season, approximately 12 to 14 days apart. An average of between 100 to 126 eggs are laid in each nest. Hatchlings emerge in about 60 days.

The successful hatchlings from coastal North America spend years in the Gulf Stream.

Adults vary considerably in size, ranging from 150 to 375 pounds. Loggerheads feed primarily on shellfish. They forage in coastal bays and estuaries as well as in the shallow water along the continental shelves. Carnivores, their powerful jaw muscles enable them to feed on hard-shelled prey such as whelks and conch.

Skeletochronology research in the NOAA lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, has shown that loggerhead sea turtles are likely live to be 70 years or older.

Loggerhead turtles are found worldwide primarily in subtropical and temperate regions of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and in the Mediterranean Sea. In the Atlantic, the loggerhead turtle’s range extends from Newfoundland to Argentina.

One study conducted many years ago estimated that worldwide there are between 40,000 and 50,000 nesting females.

Green turtles (Chelonia mydas)

An adult green turtle on Hatteras Island. Photographed in 2021 by Molly Mays, CAHA.

Don’t expect to see green shells on these turtles. They were named for the green color of the fat under their carapaces, i.e., shells. Carapace colors range from brown, olive-and-gray to black.

Females nest at intervals of about every two years and between three to five times per season. They lay an average of 115 eggs in each nest, with the eggs incubating for about 60 days.

Because there are so few nesting females on the Outer Banks, adults are rarely seen, and they are huge — weighing between 240 and 420 pounds — and can be up to four feet in length. Young green sea turtles, weighing in the 10- to 20-pound range, are the most likely species to be seen washed up on shore during cold spells, because many forage in the Pamlico Sound.

Unlike the loggerhead, adult greens are herbivores, feeding on subaquatic vegetation and algae. Young sea turtles will also feed on worms, crustaceans and insects. Their jaws are finely serrated, which aids them in tearing vegetation.

Green turtles are found in all temperate and tropical waters throughout the world near coastlines, islands, bays and protected shores with seagrass beds. Rarely are they observed in the open ocean.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy estimates that worldwide, there are between 85,000 and 90,000 nesting females.

Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii)

A stunned Kemp’s ridley photographed in 2019. Photo: C. Leinbach

This sea turtle is named after Richard Kemp, a Florida fisherman and naturalist who discovered this species in 1880 and sent the specimen to Harvard University to be studied.

They nest more often than other sea turtle species — every one to three years on average and two to three times each season. They lay an average of 110 eggs in each nest and the eggs incubate for about 55 days.

Their range is mostly limited to the Gulf of Mexico, which explains why so few nest on the Outer Banks.

Much smaller than loggerheads and greens, adults measure around two feet long and weigh between 70 and 108 pounds. Carnivores, they feed on crabs, clams, mussels, shrimp, fish, sea urchins, squid and jellyfish.

On the brink of extinction in the 1960s, they were listed as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Conservation Act, the predecessor to the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1970. Efforts to bring them back included clamping down on illegal harvesting and a successful relocation of more than 20,000 eggs from Mexico to Texas over a period of 10 years.

They remain the rarest of the sea turtles but have made a slow but steady increase. Estimates today are between 7,000 and 9,000 nesting females.

Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)

A stranded leatherback turtle on Atlantic Beach, March 2014. Photo: Sarah Finn, NCWRC

This sea turtle gets its name from its unique carapace, which is composed of a layer of tough, rubbery skin, strengthened by tiny bone plates that gives it a leathery look.

Sightings in the region are highly newsworthy, even if found dead, as was the case in January 2021 when one was found on Hatteras Island.

By far, the leatherback is the largest sea turtle and reptile on earth. Adults are four- to eight-feet in length and most weigh between 500 and 1,000 pounds. The largest leatherback ever recorded, on Wales’ Harlech beach in 1988, weighed 2,019 pounds with a length of nearly 10 feet from head to the tip of the tail.

Leatherbacks nest at intervals of two to three years, and between four to seven times per season. Incubation of an average of 80 eggs is about 60 days.

Unlike the other sea turtle species that return to where they hatched, females may change nesting beaches, though they tend to stay in the same region.

Their primary food source is jellyfish. Strong swimmers, they can dive to depths of approximately 4,000 feet — deeper than any other sea turtle — and can stay down for up to 85 minutes.

Open ocean wanderers, they have the widest distribution of sea turtles because they can tolerate cold temperatures. In the Atlantic, they can be found as far north as Norway and the Arctic Circle and south to the tip of Africa.

In the Pacific, their range extends as far north as Alaska and south beyond the southernmost tip of New Zealand.

They migrate to tropical and subtropical coastal regions to mate and nest, which explains why they are rare nesters in the Carolinas. In the Atlantic, they nest on beaches of the West Indies and Trinidad and Tobago.

Because of their fondness for jellyfish, they are particularly susceptible to harm caused by ingesting plastic bags and other plastics, which can lead to their death.

Estimates are between 34,000 and 36,000 nesting females.

Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

A post-hatchling hawksbill turtle awaits release after being rehabilitated at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, April 2017. Photo: Sarah Finn, NCWRC

Named for their narrow, pointed beak, the hawksbills’ beautifully-colored, patterned carapace is the classic “tortoiseshell” that nearly drove them to extinction as hunters sold the shells to those making jewelry and trinkets.

Today, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) forbids the trade of any turtle products on the international market, including hawksbill tortoise shell, but illegal hunting continues to represent a threat to the species in many parts of the world.

Hawksbills are found mainly throughout the world’s tropical oceans, which accounts for why they are so rare here, with just one known nesting in 2016 and 10 reports of stranded hawksbill sea turtles since records were kept beginning in the mid-1980s; all were small juveniles, and all were observed between 2001 to 2009, according to a published report.

They nest at intervals of two to four years and between three to six times per season, with an average 160 eggs in each nest.

Adults can weigh up to 150 pounds.

Monday winds remain high, ferry services suspended, flooding on NC 12 on Hatteras Island

NC12 flooding on Hatteras Island, Jan. 17. Photo by NCDOT

The sky is bright; the rain and strong winds from Sunday gone, but the weather system that pummeled the Outer Banks yesterday is not over. Winds are expected to remain all day into night in the mid-20 mph range.  

All ferry service remains suspended until wind conditions improve.

NCDOT on its social media page reported this morning (Jan. 17) that due to strong southwest winds, sound side flooding is worsening all along NC12 between Oregon Inlet and Hatteras.

Currently, travel is not advised on NC12. If you absolutely must venture out, be prepared for these conditions and drive with extreme caution.

For additional information on the Hatteras Inlet ferry service, call 252-996-6000.

For information on the Pamlico Sound ferry service — Cedar Island, Swan Quarter and Ocracoke — call 252-463-7040.

Hatteras Inlet ferry. Photo: P. Vankevich

Storm system begins to impact Outer Banks


The storm system arriving now on the Outer Banks will bring heavy rain and strong winds to the area Sunday and Sunday night, the National Weather Service out of Newport is forecasting.

A High Wind Warning has been issued for the Outer Banks and Eastern Carteret County and a high surf advisory from Duck to Surf City.

Ocracoke could get about two inches of rain.

Temperatures will be high enough so that there will be no snow on the Outer Banks, but those traveling should be cautious since the high waves will be cause over wash on portions of NC 12.

In the winter weather advisory area (mainly areas along and west of Hwy 17 on the mainland) may get a brief period of a wintry mix (freezing rain, sleet, light snow) early Sunday that could be hazardous to travel before transitioning to rain, which may be heavy at times, by late Sunday morning through the afternoon.

Ferry service was running Sunday morning, but the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries were suspended around 11 a.m. as winds increase. Gusts on Ocracoke could reach 55 mph. 

For more information on the local forecast, visit www.weather.gov/mhx for weather information, or the National Weather Service office in Newport / Morehead City’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NWSMoreheadCity/.

NC12 subcommittee cites Canal Zone and Ocracoke as top priorities

The ferry stacking lanes at the north end of Ocracoke have been unusable for more than two years due to ocean erosion. Photo: C. Leinbach

Reposted from the Outer Banks Voice on Jan. 15, 2022.

By Kip Tabb

After six months of meetings, a subcommittee of the NC12 Task Force has reached a consensus on what areas of the vulnerable road that connects Ocracoke and Hatteras with the northern Outer Banks should be the top priorities for keeping the transportation link open.

At its Jan. 13 meeting, the subcommittee focused on five areas of concern: Ocracoke; Sandy Bay between Frisco and Hatteras Village; Buxton; Avon; and the Canal Zone, which is from the base of the Basnight Bridge on Hatteras up to the Pea Island Visitors Center.

The members ultimately agreed that the Canal Zone and Ocracoke would be identified as the top priorities in the draft report they will present to the full NC12 Task Force.

“When we write up this report…the Canal Zone, Ocracoke, Frisco, Buxton, Avon would be the order that we put them in for the long-term solutions,” said National Park Service Outer Banks Group Superintendent Dave Hallac.

During the meeting, there was discussion about whether all hotspots could be grouped into one priority, but Task Force Chair, Dare County Manager Bobby Outten, asserted that such a strategy could leave stakeholders without a say about where and how projects and funds are allocated.

“Either we tell them we want to start here…and that’s where we need to allocate the money, or they’re going to say, ‘we have this much money’ and that is going to determine where they start whether we like it or not,” Outten said. “At some point, they’re going to make the…decision for us if we don’t have a target.”

Of the two areas identified as top priorities, Ocracoke has the most complex and expensive needs, as pointed out by NCDOT Deputy Division Engineer, Win Bridgers.

Heading into the ‘Canal Zone’ on Pea Island as seen from the Basnight Bridge. Photo: C. Leinbach

“Ocracoke is a constant maintenance effort and threat…that probably represents the biggest dollar value or the total of need to come up with any legitimate cure,” he said.

The group also came to quick agreement that the Canal Zone had to be the top priority with Frisco resident Natalie Kavanaugh stating that, “I think we can all agree on that on Hatteras Island. We can’t get off the island if you can’t get through the Canal Zone.”

Hatteras COOP General Manager Susan Flythe touched on the importance of the transportation network to power and communications.

“The islands are also providing critical infrastructure via electricity and communication, and [that power and communication] all run down the island.  And the further north that they are compromised, the more of the island residents and businesses that are impacted,” she said.

Because Dare County has pending beach nourishment projects in Avon and Buxton, Hallac recommended that they be given lower priorities.

The subcommittee consists of stakeholders deciding which projects to fund and the parameters of those projects. It includes officials from Dare and Hyde counties, NCDOT, the National Park Service, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and others.

The subcommittee will issue a draft report to the NC12 Task Force for approval.

A portion of ‘The Science Surround NC 12 Hotspots’ PowerPoint presentation last July by Dr. Reide Corbett, director of the Coastal Studies Institute, Michael Fly of the NC Coastal Federation, and Dave Hallac, Cape Hatteras National Seashore superintendent.

Hyde to hold public meeting on Ocracoke’s resiliency

Addressing some of the storm water management issues like this along Irvin Garrish Highway will help Ocracoke village be more resilient to weather issues. Photo: C. Leinbach

Ocracoke/Hyde County has received a Resilient Coastal Communities Program (RCCP) grant and a public meeting about the program is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, in the Ocracoke Community Center.

Hyde is one of 25 North Carolina communities that received a grant from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Coastal Management (DCM) for technical assistance to help communities be more prepared to withstand, respond to, and recover from weather or other disruptions.

Hyde received the gift of engineering services in the amount of $30,000 to do initial Phase 1 planning, Sara Teaster, Hyde County grant administrator, explained.

“Out of this planning process the Community Action Team (CAT) will select up to five projects to move forward for additional planning, engineering schematics and funding through grants,” she said.

One of the projects the team has selected already is to address the drainage issues within the village.

“Climate change will bring sea level rise, water table rising and additional heavy rainfall to our area,” Teaster said. “Addressing some of the storm water management issues will help the village be more resilient to these coming changes.”

Hyde County is asking for all Ocracoke residents, property owners, and other stakeholders to complete a short questionnaire as part of the study. To complete the form online, click here (or scan the QR code below) or you can download and print the form here and return it.

A total of $675,000 will be made available for the completion of Phases 1 and 2 of the new N.C. Resilient Coastal Communities Program (RCCP). DCM will contract directly with selected contractors to provide direct technical assistance services to localities.

For more information on the RCCP, click here.

Residents can attend virtually via Zoom, click here to join (you can also scan the QR code below).

QR Code for the RCCP Questionnaire
QR Code for Public Meeting via Zoom

Storm conditions expected to arrive on Sunday


A storm system headed this way late this weekend will bring heavy rain and strong winds to the area Sunday and Sunday night, the National Weather Service out of Newport is forecasting.

A wintry mix of sleet or areas of freezing rain early Sunday morning before changing quickly to all rain by mid Sunday morning is likely for the inland areas west of Ocracoke.

Heavy rain and gusty winds are likely Sunday afternoon and Sunday night.

Strong southeast winds Sunday will shift into the southwest to west Sunday night into Monday. Minor to locally moderate water level rises will be possible for areas adjacent to the coast, Pamlico Sound, Neuse, Bay and Pungo Rivers.

High surf may lead to ocean overwash and beach erosion along the coast.

Due to windy conditions today, a small-craft advisory for the Pamlico Sound issued by the NWS is in effect until 7 a.m. Saturday.

N.C. Ferry Division to host four regional job fairs



Ferry workers prepare to secure a ferry pulling into South Dock on Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach

MANNS HARBOR – The North Carolina Ferry Division is teaming up with NC Works to host four career fairs to find qualified applicants to staff its ferries, terminals and shipyard.

The career fairs will be held at the following times and locations:

  • Jan. 26: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., NC Works Career Center, 111 Jordan Plaza, Elizabeth City
  • Feb. 2: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., NC Works Career Center, 3813 Arendell St., Morehead City
  • Feb. 9: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., NC Works Career Center, 3101 Bismark St., Greenville
  • Feb. 16: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Brunswick County Career Center, 5300-7 Main St., Shallotte

Applications will be accepted for all positions at all experience levels — from entry-level parking lot attendants to experienced boat captains. Both temporary summer employment and full-time permanent positions are available.

Among the benefits of Ferry Division employment are:

  • Competitive salaries
  • Year-round, full-time permanent employment
  • Health insurance
  • Retirement benefits
  • Paid vacation, holidays and sick leave

People interested in attending one of the career fairs should bring resumes and supporting documents.

Representatives from the Ferry Division will be on hand to explain the various positions available and opportunities for advancement.

To see jobs currently available with the Ferry Division, visit the state jobs website and search “Ferry.”

Please continue to visit the site, as new ferry jobs are added regularly.

For more information, call 252-423-5100.  

Bridge will bypass Pea Island but refuge access to remain

Twin cranes bookend a segment of the N.C. 12 bridge under construction Wednesday near Pea Island. The project is expected to be completed early this year. Photo: Kip Tabb

Reprinted courtesy of CoastalReview.org

By Kip Tabb

PEA ISLAND — Sometime soon, possibly before spring, the 2.4-mile “jug handle” bridge bypassing the troubled S-curves just north of Rodanthe will open to traffic, and after it does, folks will still be able to access the national wildlife refuge here.

The bridge, with a projected 100-year lifespan, is seen as the only practical solution to maintaining the transportation corridor connecting Ocracoke and Hatteras Island with the northern Outer Banks. It was also the result of a legal settlement in 2015 that had halted the entire Bonner Bridge replacement project because of conservationists’ concerns about protecting the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

N.C. 12, the thin ribbon of highway that is the lifeline between the southern Outer Banks and the Marc C. Basnight Bridge over Oregon Inlet and Nags Head, is protected by a line of sand dunes. Where the road passes through the refuge, coastal storms regularly breach the dunes and create an impassable barrier. It typically takes two to three days before North Carolina Department of Transportation crews can reopen the road.

The S-curves are the most active area of Pea Island.

Looking Back: Looking Back: Elected Officials Praise Bridge Deal

Tim Hass, communications officer for NCDOT’s Divisions 1 and 2 and the Ferry Division, told Coastal Review the bridge should open for traffic in the next two to three months.

“The target at this point is late February or early March, but that is heavily dependent on weather and equipment,” he said.

When the bridge does open, about two miles of roadway extending north from Rodanthe through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is to be removed, along with the sandbags that were put in place in an effort to slow the Atlantic Ocean’s encroachment.

“Pavement and sandbag removal on the S-curves will begin after (the bridge opens), and will likely take three to six months to complete,” Hass said.

Once the road is removed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge, plans to maintain continued public access to the area.

“What we’ve got planned with NCDOT, where DOT is staging their equipment at the north end of the Rodanthe bridge on the ocean side, after they remove their equipment, that’ll be paved, and we’ll have a parking lot there. The public will be able to park there and have access to south end of the beach,” Pea Island and Alligator National Wildlife Refuge Manager Scott Lanier said.

“The paving of the north end parking lot will likely begin in January,” Hass said.

Other than the parking lot, there are no plans for trails or development. But the site is to remain open to the public except during shorebird or sea turtle nesting activity.

A view of the parking lot under construction at Pea Island. Photo: Kip Tabb

“The only time that I could envision a portion of that being closed would be during bird nesting season if we had tern nesting or something like that. And that would be just like we do on the rest of the beach,” Lanier said.

Removing the road and sandbags is an important part of restoring the natural resilience of the habitat. New Inlet, about 2.5 miles north of the planned parking lot, may be a model for what will happen as natural cycles return to the S-curves.

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene breached the dunes at the New Inlet area of Pea Island. That inlet has subsequently filled in and the Capt. Richard Etheridge Bridge is located where the breach once existed. As Lanier explained, he expects that after the sandbags and road are removed, the habitat will rebound.

“We anticipate that, just like up at the Etheridge Bridge, that becoming great habitat for nesting sea turtles and colonial nesting waterbirds,” he said. “When that bridge went over that spot and that little inlet filled in after Irene — it is heavily used by those species. So we anticipate something similar there as far as habitat creation goes. That little portion of the refuge part of the island will be able to function more naturally.”

Lanier said that it’s never their intention to keep people off that refuge.

“Our visitors are an important part of what we do, but that access just may be different in the future,” he added. “In order for someone to have appreciation of that resource, they have got to be able to experience that resource. So, by no means are we looking to keep people off for refuge.”

Village Thrift to begin accepting donations this week

The Village Thrift has relocated to the Community Store in Community Square and is only accepting donations of items in good repair until an opening date is set. Photo: C. Leinbach

The Village Thrift, now in the old Community Store in Community Square, will be open for drop-off of donations only beginning this week from noon to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

These hours will also apply in the coming weeks, said Felicity Gage, one of the managers, but an opening date for shoppers has not yet been set. Donated items should be clean and in good repair, she said.

Donations can only be brought when the shop is open, she said, and islanders may not leave items on the porch as the Community Square board has asked them to keep the porch clean and clear.

Gage noted that the shop will NOT take the following items: old computer stuff (including printers), unidentified electronic cords, VCRs and tapes, cassettes, old bulky TVs, old stereo components, and anything that doesn’t work or is broken. Phone chargers are OK.

The popular shop has been closed since Sept. 6, 2019, after Hurricane Dorian flooded it in its old location across the street from Community Square.

“The two plus years of no thrift shop has made it very clear how much it’s needed and what a community service and resource it is,” Gage said.  “We’re very excited to be on our way to getting Village Thrift up and running again, and big thanks for helping fill it up with ‘new,’ useful, fun stuff.”

For questions about donations, call Gage at 252-928-2799.

Proceeds from the store benefit the Ocracoke Youth Center, which operates the Ocracoke Community Ballfield.

Sandra Marley: 1942 to 2022

Sandy Marley. Photo courtesy of the family.

Sandra Harris Marley, 79, died Thursday, January 6, at home on Ocracoke with family by her side.

Born March 7, 1942, she was a daughter of the late James A. Harris and Avis Sherrill Harris and grew up in Troy, NC.

She was a loving mother and grandmother. She will be deeply missed by family and friends.

Sandy loved shelling, lottery tickets and living on Ocracoke. She was always up for an adventure. She enjoyed playing cards and never met a stranger. Her grandchildren were her greatest joy.

She is survived by her daughter, Lynn Marley Gaskins (Earl) and grandchildren Amanda Lynn Gaskins (Grant Jackson) and Spencer Alan Gaskins (Grace Ward).

Sandy requested no service be held. The family will celebrate her life privately.

Please consider making a donation to the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department, PO Box 332, Ocracoke, NC, 27960, or to the Ocracoke United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 278, Ocracoke, NC, 27960 in her memory.

Twiford Funeral Homes, Outer Banks, is assisting the family with arrangements. Condolences and memories may be shared at http://www.TwifordFH.com.

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