May is for moms … even those with flippers

may 8 turtle hospital

Topsail Turtle Project patrol volunteers rise with the sun and before the incoming tides to scout for turtle tracks like these.

Photo by L. Runyon
Published: Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 13:14 PM.

Our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers are officially on the clock, celebrating not only Mother’s Day on May 11 but a whole summer of motherhood as sea turtle mamas start heading to Topsail to nest.

The project has its roots in the early ’80s when Karen Beasley recruited a small cadre of friends dedicated to the protection of nesting turtles and their hatchlings. Today, under the guidance of Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer there are over 150 volunteers who patrol every inch of beach on Topsail Island from May 1 through the end of August. Whether you’re a local or just here for a few days or weeks you’ve no doubt run into those early birds decked out in their Topsail Turtle Project patrol shirts who rise with the sun (and before the incoming tides) to scout for turtle tracks.

Topsail is pretty much loggerhead territory, although we have had several greens nest here in recent years. Recent research has shown that our northern loggerheads do not reach maturity until about 35 years of age, so these ladies trudging through the sand are pretty good-sized gals, many of them tipping the scales at around 300 pounds. They are not built for land travel, so you can imagine the effort involved in hauling yourself through the sand on flippers to find the perfect home for your babies. Believe it or not that’s the easy part!

Once mom selects a spot, she digs out a nest about 2-feet deep, using only her rear flippers. Then she deposits her clutch of eggs, which average about 100-120 a nest. After carefully filling and packing the nest with sand she uses her powerful flippers to fling sand all around the area to disguise her work. Then it’s the long haul back to the sea where she spends a few weeks of R&R before her next trip ashore. It’s normal for these gals to lay between one and five nests over the course of the summer.

For the past several years we have been participating in a research project (University of Georgia) tracking the nesting patterns of our northern loggerheads. One egg is harvested from each nest and the DNA and other data is recorded and analyzed. The results to-date are quite interesting and show that sea turtles are indeed mysterious in their nesting habits. Some ladies nested several times in a very small area of beach, while others were less discriminating and traveled up and down the eastern seaboard. These critters 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 critical part in our work. Many times we have gotten calls in the night that “there’s a turtle on the beach.” There are some important things that 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 abandons the process and loses her eggs. Stay back, do not crowd or chase her or take flash photography. Keep pets away.



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