The public is again invited to watch biologists dig up hatched sea turtle nests along North Carolina beaches during August and September.
Loggerheads, green turtles, Kemp’s ridleys and the occasional leatherback come out of the ocean onto the shore each spring and summer, where they dig in and lay from 120 to 150 eggs. During the night a couple of months later, each nest "boils," and the hatchlings make their way to the surface and toward the surf.
After a nest hatches, biologists excavate the site to see what remains. They count the empty eggshells and collect unhatched eggs for research. Sometimes they find live or dead hatchlings. At excavations where the public is invited to attend, while biologists examine the nest, a park ranger or trained volunteer presents a program on sea turtles and shares what researchers have found.
Biologists say nest excavations are an important way to get data on annual sea turtle hatch and emergence success rates.
So far this year, turtles have built 531 nests along the state’s 330 miles of ocean-facing beaches, according to a database maintained by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Sea Turtle Project. The nests are monitored and protected by several agencies, including wildlife resources, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Division of Parks and Recreation and UNC Wilmington. An army of volunteers organized by local groups help watch over the nests.
According to the database, this season’s first hatch was a loggerhead nest at Oak Island whose hatchlings emerged Sunday night.
Loggerheads are by far the most common sea turtles to nest in North Carolina; they account for 513 of the nests found so far this year. There is one green turtle nest, two leatherbacks, 10 Kemp’s ridleys and three unknown, the database shows.
Because hatchings aren’t entirely predictable, neither are excavations, which happen two or three days after a nest hatches. Excavations are expected to begin in early August.
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which has 110 sea turtle nests so far this year, announces excavations one day in advance through its hotline, 252-475-9629. The seashore reaches 70 miles from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island.
The Bald Head Island Conservancy holds excavations three days after a nest hatches. They are posted on the conservancy’s website.