Wild nights: Sea Turtle Nesting on Oak Island

Brunswick County Life, Southport Oak Island

By Ruby Cline

 Every year from May through August, late at night while most residents of Oak Island are fast asleep, an amazing phenomenon occurs. Under a moonlit sky, Loggerhead turtles emerge from the ocean and drag themselves across the sand, leaving behind them what looks to be an oversized tire track. They search for the perfect spot between the dunes and the high-tide line, where they will dig a hole with their back flipper and lay their eggs a foot and a half deep. After covering their eggs with sand, they gradually make their way back to the ocean without a second look back.

 Throughout the nesting months, the beach is closely monitored. Kellie Beeson, director of the Oak Island Parks and Recreation Department and part of the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, scans the beach daily looking for the inimitable turtle tracks and depressions in the sand. She marks off the nests with four stakes, yellow tape and a sign marked with the date — otherwise, you wouldn’t know the nests were there. Beeson then coordinates with volunteers to assist with the hatching process.

 Overall, the incubation period is between 55 and 85 days. “We begin to monitor the nests on the 50th day, as average hatching is around 62 days this season,” Beeson says.

 It’s imperative for the nests to be watched closely so the new hatchlings can make their way to the ocean without falling victim to gulls or ghost crabs. The survival rate of the hatchlings is highly dependent upon the concentrated efforts of the Protection Program and its volunteers, as well as residents and vacationers. Unfortunately, regardless of the efforts, only one in one thousand hatchlings survive to adulthood.

 When a nest hatches, volunteers are on hand with flashlights to help direct the baby turtles to the ocean. Since the turtles’ natural instinct is to follow the light reflected from the surface of the sea, which may not always be prevalent, the flashlight assistance is critical for them so they don’t go toward an artificial light opposite of the ocean. Once they make their way across the beach, they immerse themselves into the ocean to begin their life journeys.

 Sea turtles likely have been nesting on Oak Island for as long as the island has existed. Matthew Godfrey, Ph.D., a biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, says the main species nesting on Oak Island is the Loggerhead, with some occasional Green turtles. “We have records of nests of Loggerheads on Oak Island going back to 1984,” Godfrey says. “But, there are earlier records of  Loggerheads in Carolina going all the way back to Mark Catesby, who reported them in 1743.”

Nesting typically ends mid-August, although Godfrey notes that eggs may continue to incubate into November. This year, 55 nests were found and protected by staff and numerous volunteers to ensure the success rate of the hatchlings getting back to the ocean. As of the writing of this article, volunteers had assisted 2,137 hatchlings, with more than 20 nests still to hatch.

About 30 active volunteers in 2009 were assisted by hundreds of helpers. “We have hundreds of folks that assist but are either visitors to the island or are not able to make the 100 percent commitment required to be a nest parent,” Beeson says. “The number of folks that are unofficially involved with our program in any one season easily exceeds one thousand.”

Even if you are not an active volunteer with the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, there still are ways you can help. In order to avoid any instances of misguided baby sea turtles, keep beach-front lighting to a minimum. “Lights will distract and disorient hatchlings and can cause them to go away from the ocean instead of towards it,” Beeson says. She adds, “Keeping the beach and ocean free of litter is critical, as turtles often mistake plastic bags and other debris as food and once this is ingested it can cause death.”

The female hatchlings that survive to adulthood, after making their way through life in various parts of the ocean, will travel back some thousands of miles to return to where they were born, in this case Oak Island, to nest their future brood.

For more information, visit the Ocean Education Center at SE 49th Street in Oak Island, which provides programs, information and activities related to sea turtles and the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program’s efforts. To volunteer, call (910) 278-5518.