By Karen Sota
Turtle Moms and turtle babies share the beach
Although our turtle mamas are still technically “on the clock” with the official nesting season continuing through August, it’s their babies that are moving into the spotlight. With over a hundred nests on Topsail and the pitter patter of tiny flippers, it’s time for a quick review of some of the FAQs for our island visitors.
When will a nest hatch? By far it’s the question we’re asked the most, and no matter how many times we get it our answer is still the same: we don’t know. We’re not being maliciously obtuse, it’s the truth. We don’t know when these turtle babies will be “born” any better than you know exactly the date and time of your granddaughter’s birth. They come out whenever they’re ready.
How long do the eggs stay in the sand? The average incubation period is sixty days, but that’s only an average. Air and sand temperature can affect the actual incubation period with hotter sand sometimes speeding up the process. And we’ve had a darn hot summer, so some of our nests might go a bit earlier. As we move into the cooler fall temperatures (we hope they’re cooler, anyway) their time in the sand will probably be closer to the average.
Is there any way to guess when a nest is ready? Sort of. Obviously the first thing to look at is when the nest was laid and when those sixty days might be getting close. But it’s not like mom leaves a calendar with the date circled with her clutch. Like people, you have early risers. And once they break out of their shell, using a special adaptation referred to as their “egg tooth” (technical name caruncle) they start jostling their neighbors out of their slumber. Pretty soon everybody is up and kicking. All of that activity underneath causes the sand on the surface to begin to sink.
If it looks like a nest may hatch what else can I look for? Topsail Turtle Project volunteers will create a ramp, a smoothed area with sand “guardrails” that will hopefully guide the little critters safely in the direction of the surf. Hatchlings are so tiny that even a small footprint in the sand can trap them or delay their trip. And since they’ve been living in the dark for months any bright light can disorient them, sending them quickly off-course. They head toward the brightest object around which ideally is the moon and its reflection on the water and waves. A sure sign that a nest is close, at least according to our decades of experience, is the sight of our “nest sitters” huddled around a nest from dusk until the wee hours of the morning – hoping.
What happens during a hatch? It’s a group effort, a real family affair, at least for the turtles. They work together to battle through the broken shells and the constant flipper-in-the-face to make their way towards the surface. It’s dig and rest, dig and rest. As they near the top the group comes to a stop and waits just below the surface. Millions of years of existence as a species have told them that predatory attack is less likely at night, so they’re waiting for the sun to set and the sand temperature at the surface to cool down. At that point they emerge in mass in what we call a “boil.” If all goes well, they locate the horizon and make a mad dash for the surf.
Why are the Topsail Turtle Project volunteers there? From the 1970’s Karen Beasley and her mother, Jean, recognized the increasing stressors of coastal development and the natural affinity we all have for the sea and the impact on sea turtles. Our volunteers are there to minimize any adverse effects we humans may have on this critical step in the continuation of the species. These are federally protected and critically endangered animals, and when our “nest sitters” are on-the-job they are the final word on protocol. They are there for crowd control and for education and there are specific rules to follow if you are fortunate enough to see a nest hatch.
I missed the hatch – am I out of luck? Not necessarily. If you’re going to be around for a while you can come to the nest analysis which is done during daylight hours, three days after the hatch. Volunteers will carefully excavate the nest and document their findings. And the “findings” will often include a few late risers who didn’t hear the alarm go off. Data collected will include the total number of eggs (including unhatched,) the number of live hatches and any other things of note. If you missed the boil this is the next best thing and worth your time. Our volunteers are a bit more relaxed you can still ask them any questions you may have.
What do I do if I find a hatchling on the beach? Carefully pick it up and put it in a small container with some sand and a very small amount of water - barely cover the flippers. With this extreme heat it’s important that the little critter not bake in the sun for hours. Then call our Director of Beach Operations, Terry Meyer at: 910-470-2880. If she is not available, you may call the hospital during operating hours: 910-329-0222. We will take the information and one of our area coordinators will meet you to retrieve the hatchling and refer it to us for follow-up.
Anything else? Some obvious things: turn off any bright outdoor lights that would send hatchlings in the wrong direction; pick up all beach paraphernalia (chairs, toys, towels) and take it with you when you leave and fill in any holes you dig. Please do not call the hospital to ask about any specific nest – we don’t have the data in front of us and are unable to answer that question. Even with all the coverage by our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers it’s possible to miss nesting or hatching signs for a variety of reasons. That’s why we ask you to be our extra eyes and to report any turtle activity to our Director of Beach Operations, Terry Meyer at: 910-470-2880. And we continue to admit many turtles with various injuries or illnesses. Please be on the lookout for any turtle in distress, injured (or dead) and call Terry or our hospital for a quick response. The State of NC hotline for stranded, sick and injured turtles at: 252-241-7367. The state number picks up 24/7. Remember that interfering or harassing federally protected sea turtles in any way makes you subject to steep fines and possible imprisonment. Our work with sea turtles, at the hospital and on the beach, is authorized by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, ES Permit 22ST05.
Hospital tours through the month of August are on the following schedule: Monday – Friday, 11 AM – 3 PM. Closed on weekends. Please remember that admittance to our hospital is only through pre-paid on-line reservations for a specific date and time. Visit the Visit page on our website for more information and to make your reservations. Check the website for our tour schedule in September.
By Karen Sota
By the time you read this most of our senior interns will have left us, each taking a different path in their future. The good news for our regular staff is that two of them will be staying on for a bit to help us through the next few months. Of course nobody, other than our turtles, gets to walk out of our doors with just a wave of their flipper. When they were chosen for our program they were told that successful completion of their summer with us would involve a project that could be used for the benefit of the hospital.
One of those projects has been stopping recent visitors in their tracks. After over forty-five hours, much of it spent on her hands and knees, Holly Hubing has put the finishing touches on her wall mural of the four species of sea turtles found along the North Carolina coast. It’s been quite an ambitious project and Holly worked closely with Tina Sharpe (mentor for the UNCW Saturday interns for many years) and Lindsey Hull (senior intern mentor) to develop and flesh out the concept. Accurately portraying sea turtles with all their unique characteristics is a challenge. For example, there’s not one scute pattern for every sea turtle. They all have different numbers and placements on their carapace and head. And their heads are shaped differently to accommodate their particular diets. And they are distinctly different in body size, shape and color.
Holly started by researching various sources for the dimensions of a typical adult in each species. Then she sketched each turtle, making sure that the body proportions and characteristics were correct. She used our patients as her muse: Maddie for the Kemp’s, Jazzberry Jam for the green, and Sahara Desert for the loggerhead. A little math and a lot of space planning were required to determine size relationships and final placement on her limited wall surface. Starting with the Kemp’s, the smallest sea turtle (and most endangered) she used a projector to fit Maddie snugly under a window. From there she projected her other drawings onto the wall in order of size, ending at the door with the leatherback.
Once they were sketched onto the wall, she gathered her paints and got to work. Holly found painting on a large vertical surface quite different from working on flat pieces of paper and it took some time to get used to doing so. Her table was loaded with paint jars and some very tiny brushes for all the detail work needed to make these turtles as representative as possible. It was fun for our staff to watch them come to life over the past month. Just when we thought she was done she’d be standing there or crawling on the floor with a paint brush in her hand adding more detail. Holly says she’s a perfectionist and it was a “lot of learning and going back again and again to check details.” When I asked if she was happy with it she said “Yes, but it won’t be done until I’m very, very happy with it.” We’re very, very happy with it. Thank you, Holly. It’s something that will be on our wall years from now when you bring your own kids in to visit.
We’re well into cross-over season on the beach. The mamas are still arriving to nest and our earlier nests are hatching. We can’t tell you where or when it will happen. Honest. Those little critters come out when they’re good and ready and we don’t get advance notice. It’s a matter of luck to be there for a boil. If you miss the hatch you might be able to catch a nest analysis which is done three days after the hatch. Volunteers excavate and analyze the contents which just might include a late rising hatchling or two that missed the alarm. If you spot a nesting mama, see hatchlings emerging, or see anything unusual such as an injured or stranded turtle please call our Director of Beach Operations, Terry Meyer at: 910-470-2880. If she is not available, you may call the hospital during operating hours: 910-329-0222 . We will take the information and we will send a trained volunteer to meet you to assess the situation. The State of NC hotline for stranded, sick, and injured turtles is 252-241-7367. The state number picks up 24/7. Please note that all our work with sea turtles, at the hospital and on the beach, is authorized by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, ES Permit 22ST05.
Our public tour schedule has changed for the month of August. August 1-12 we are open Monday- Friday from Noon - 3 PM. August 15 – September 2 we are open Monday-Friday from 11 AM – 2 PM. We are not open on weekends in August. Tickets MUST be purchased in advance through the Visit page on our website. Select the date, time and the number of guests in your party and purchase your tickets. We limit the number of guests for each time to make the experience more enjoyable and safer as we still contend with Covid. Sorry, but we are not able to accommodate walk-ups for tours once we sell out for the day. Please note that if our surrounding counties experience an increase in Covid cases we may require masks for everyone over the age of three, no exceptions. Check the website for current masking requirements when buying your tickets. Traffic continues to be challenging even during the week so plan your arrival accordingly. If you are coming only to our gift shop (not for a tour) you can enter through the single door to the left of the main entrance.