The height of sea turtle nesting season has come to an end, and Pleasure Island beaches have experienced an extremely successful summer.
Since daily beach patrols began on May 1, 11 nests have been found on Kure Beach, 16 on Carolina Beach, and a record 85 in Fort Fisher State Park. Last year just two nests were found on Carolina Beach, three on Kure Beach, and 18 in Fort Fisher, according to the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project and rangers from Fort Fisher.
Nancy Busovne, the Carolina Beach coordinator for the Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project, said she and her team of volunteers begin looking for nests along the beach on the first of May and continue daily patrols until August 31 each year. They look for tracks made by mother turtles, find where they lead to, then mark and secure the nests. After an incubation period that usually lasts 50-60 days, the eggs hatch and the baby turtles make their way to the ocean, leaving tracks to show which nest they came from. Three days after a hatch, volunteers excavate the nest, count the eggs (the average clutch size is 120 eggs, according to Buscovne), and gather data to send to state scientists.
“The season officially begins May 1, but we don’t start seeing nests until the end of May,” said Busovne. “Sometimes we have hatchings up until early October.”
Each nest that is found is assigned a leader and a team of volunteers to monitor it. Originally only 15 nests were found and marked on Carolina Beach this year, but a couple walking along the beach saw small tracks coming from an unmarked area and alerted officials.
“Despite our best efforts of getting out there and patrolling, sometimes we miss one,” said Busovne.
Park rangers at Fort Fisher had a different kind of surprise this year. While most of the nests are laid by loggerhead turtles, one very special kind of turtle paid a visit to the state recreation area earlier in the summer. A female Kemp’s ridley, the world’s most endangered sea turtle, laid a clutch of 75 eggs on one part of the beach.
“It was a one hundred percent hatch success,” said North Carolina State Park Ranger Katharine Womble.
Unlike loggerheads, Kemp’s ridley turtles nest during the day, according to Womble, so more people got to see this very special event than normal. Though some Kemp’s ridleys have been recording nesting as far north as the eastern seaboard of Canada, most lay their eggs on warmer beaches farther south.
“This is very rare for this area,” Womble said.
Though nesting season is over, some clutches have yet to hatch. In Fort Fisher, Womble said 66 of the 85 nests found have hatched so far. In Carolina Beach, 13 have hatched, and Busovne said they’re currently keeping an eye on a few nests.
“There’s one that we’re sitting and watching right now, then there should be two more [hatching] in two weeks,” said Busovne.
Another thing that sea turtle observers have encountered this year are shorter incubation periods.
“It has been warmer and we’ve had some early hatches overall,” Buscovne said. “The heat kind of speeds things up.”
“We had a lot of [eggs] hatch right at 50 days or right before,” said Womble, who noted that their instinct is to hatch at night when it’s cooler.
While it’s been a great season overall with some pleasant surprises, Busovne said a problem arose this year that she did not expect: interference from humans.
According to Busovne, someone attempted to dig up one of the nests, and another person tried to jab a different nest with a pole. Because sea turtles are endangered, these incidents are “extremely illegal.”
“Tampering [with sea turtle nests] is a federal offense,” said Buscovne. “We do take this very seriously.”
Buscovne said one of the most egregious problems with humans this summer happened a few weeks ago, when a beachgoer shoved a volunteer by one of the Carolina Beach nests. For both the shoving and the pole jabbing incident, the police were called.
“We’re looking for the people now,” Buscovne said. “We plan to press charges.”
Despite the unexpected issues, Buscovne said she’s pleased with how the summer turned out.
“It’s been a busy season,” she said. “I’m very proud of all our volunteers.”