Surf City Sea Turtle Hospital Offers Counseling During Nesting Season

The ladies are at home – or even on the beach.

After a bit of a late start, these mother turtles are finally here and our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers are out at dawn looking for signs of nests. As of this writing, we have 19 verified nests on the island.

Topsail is pretty much loggerhead territory, but in recent years a green (maybe more than one) has taken a liking to our sand. Research has shown that our Northern Loggerheads don’t reach maturity for about 35 years, so these ladies trudging through the sand are good-sized girls, many of them tipping the scales at around three hundred pounds . They’re not designed for land travel, so you can imagine the effort it takes to pull yourself up through the sand on flippers to find the perfect home for your babies.

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Believe it or not, that’s the easy part.

Once mom chooses a spot, she digs a nest about two feet deep, using only her rear flippers. Then she lays her clutch of eggs, which averages 100 to 120 eggs per nest. After carefully filling and packing the nest with sand, she uses her powerful fins to throw sand all around the area to disguise her work. Then it’s the long drive to the sea where she spends a few weeks resting and relaxing before her next trip ashore.

It is normal for these girls to lay between one and five nests during the summer. Our volunteers check, mark and record data on each nest. If the nest was laid in a vulnerable location (below the high tide line or in a high traffic beach area), they carefully remove and move each egg to a safer area.

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Since 2010 we have been involved in a research project at the University of Georgia (http://www.seaturtle.org/nestdb/genetics.shtml) that is tracking the nesting patterns of our Northern Loggerheads. An egg is harvested from each nest and DNA and other data are recorded and analyzed.

A nesting mother sea turtle heads for her home in the ocean.

The results are quite interesting and show that sea turtles are indeed mysterious in their nesting habits. Some ladies nested multiple times in a small beach area, while others were less discriminating and traveled along the eastern seaboard. These creatures continue to surprise and amaze those of us who work with them.

Although we have many eyes on the beach, our visitors have always played a vital role in our work. Several times we received calls in the night saying “there is a turtle on the beach”. There are important things you can do during nesting season to keep our ladies safe.

  • Do not harass a nesting turtle in any way. Not only is it illegal, but you could cause her so much stress that she gives up on the process and loses her eggs. Stay back, don’t trample it, chase it, or take flash photos. Keep pets away.
  • Keep waterfront lighting to a minimum. Turtles can get confused by bright lights and head off in the wrong direction. With the island’s phenomenal growth, especially of massive rental properties, even “normal” indoor lighting at night is proving to be a huge distraction for nesting mothers. Every year there are more and more cases where moms (and newborns) have crossed the dunes and ended up in parking lots and on highways.
  • Do not leave heavy objects (chairs, awnings, umbrellas) on the beach overnight. A turtle can get tangled in it.
  • If you dig a hole, don’t leave without putting back all the sand. It’s dangerous not only for turtles but also for humans who can fall on it and break a bone (it happened).

Respect the nest and all instructions from our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers. They have all been trained in the correct procedures. However, we encourage you to ask them any questions you may have.

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If you spot a nesting mum or anything unusual like an injured or stranded turtle, please call our Beach Operations Manager, Terry Meyer, at 910-470-2880. If she is not available, you can call the hospital during business hours at 910-329-0222. We will take the information and send a trained volunteer to meet with you to assess the situation. North Carolina’s state hotline for stranded, sick, and injured turtles is 252-241-7367. The state number picks up 24/7. Please note that all of our work with sea turtles, in the hospital and on the beach, is licensed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, ES Permit 22ST05.

During the months of June and July, we will be open seven days a week: Monday to Friday from noon to 3 p.m.; Saturday 10am-2pm and Sunday 12pm-2pm Tickets must be purchased in advance on our website: www.seaturtlehospital.org. Select the date, time and number of guests for your party and purchase your tickets.

We are limiting the number of guests at each time to make the experience more enjoyable and to continue our commitment to keeping you and our staff safe as we continue to respond to any changes in COVID. At this stage, masks are not necessary. We are unable to accommodate walk-ins once we have sold out for the day. Please keep in mind that summer traffic can be very heavy, particularly on weekends, so plan your arrival accordingly. If you are only coming to our gift shop (not for a guided tour), you can enter through the single door to the left of the main entrance.