Burning the midnight oil

Burning the midnight oil

With nesting season drawing to a close at the end of the month, our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers move on to the night shift. Even though it looks like we’re going to end up with only about 50 nests that’s still a lot of nights spent on the beach through October, hoping and waiting. 

There’s no way for us to know exactly what day and what time those tiny critters will finally boil out of their nest. It’s about 60 days after mama tucked them into the sand, but sea turtles don’t care much for rules and guidelines. Being flexible and waiting for the right time is probably one of the secrets of their survival. Maybe we all need to take a cue from them!

So how do our volunteers know when to start their nightly monitoring, other than that 60-day thing? As the babies begin hatching there’s a lot of activity down in the nest, with eggs breaking and the little guys kicking each other around. All that commotion disturbs the sand at the surface and it starts to sink. When that happens our volunteers begin “ramping” the sand, smoothing it from the nest to the hard-pack, and building little barrier walls on the sides so that these babes have a runway of sorts when they’re ready for take-off. Then it’s show up at dusk, sit and wait. 

Just underneath the sand the critters have congregated near the top, waiting for a sign that it’s safe to come out and face the world. Once the sun goes down and the sand cools instinct tells them that the predator population has probably (hopefully) dropped and the darkness will give them additional protection. Somebody always has to be first, so one brave little soul pops through, looks around and is off. Hot on his rear flippers are all of his brothers and sisters, coming out so fast that it really does look like the nest is “boiling.” 

Now it’s time for our volunteers, who have been waiting on site (answering questions and explaining the process to excited visitors) to spring into action. They benignly shepherd these little creatures from the nest to the surf, making sure they stay on track, heading into the water and not toward somebody’s porch light. They’ll shoo away any ghost crabs and gulls looking for a late evening snack and generally just keep the path clear and all activity in the area to a minimum. They’re trained for anything out-of-the-ordinary and are authorized under our Endangered Species Act and other federal permits to do whatever is necessary to maintain order. 

Once those tiny flippers hit the surf they’re on their own for the long swim (40 – 60 miles) out to the driftlines of sargassum seaweed where they’ll spend their first few years camouflaged, eating and growing. Our loggerhead ladies will not return to the beach for more than 35 years, the age at which they reach sexual maturity. 

The hatch is mesmerizing: but once it starts it happens fast, and it seems to end all too soon for our visitors. But if you missed the actual hatch all is not lost. Three days later our volunteers return to the nest for an analysis. They carefully excavate and record the contents. Every egg is counted and examined, and it’s not at all unusual to find a few late-sleepers who just didn’t hear the alarm go off. Those little guys (or girls) will go out that night.

But if you miss the hatch or the analysis there’s a very accurate exhibit in our great hall at the hospital. A replica nest and accompanying photos will take a lot of mystery out of what’s happening under the sand. And one of our hospital volunteers is always at that exhibit to answer any of your questions. 

We continue to rely heavily on our locals and visitors to report any sighting of nesting turtles, hatching nests and any turtles in distress. Please report all local sea turtle activity to our Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer at: 910-470-2880. If unable to reach her you may also contact Director Jean Beasley at: 910-470-2800. The state of N.C. also has a hotline for strandings (injured or sick turtles): 252-241-7367 and the call will be picked up 24/7. 

Summer tour hours ending soon

Our summer interns have returned to their various schools, and our regular staff of year-round volunteers is back at work. We will maintain our summer tour schedule through Sept. 5. We are open daily except Wednesday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.. General admission is $5; seniors and military are $4; and children are $3. We are located at 302 Tortuga Lane on the mainland in Surf City. Take the turn from N.C. 50/210 onto Charlie Medlin Drive (Shipwreck Point Mini Golf is your landmark for this road.) Follow the road onto the gravel section and through the round-about. We are the only building on Tortuga. You can’t use Google Maps to find our new facility (we moved from Topsail Beach last fall). Tortuga Lane is too new and doesn’t show up on GPS. And a word of advice: if you park on the side of the road beware of the drop-off into the ditches, and that sand is softer than it looks!

Visit our website (seaturtlehospital.org) and/or our Facebook page (The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center) for updates on patients and other turtle happenings. 

NOTE: We had originally planned to be open through Sept. 6, but our director Jean Beasley will be in Cary that evening to accept the N.C. Wildlife Federation Governor’s Achievement Award for “Conservationist of the Year.” Of course most of us will be there cheering wildly! 

We’re testing the waters (no pun intended) and assessing staff availability to determine our tour schedule in the off-season. Right now the likely days for tours are Thursday and Saturday, but check our Facebook page in September for the revised tour schedule.

Summer releases

Canady has her flippers crossed waiting for the green light for her upcoming release. Check our Facebook page (The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center) for dates and times of any upcoming releases. Details are posted the day before. 

Questions, comments, suggestions?

Please direct any questions, comments or suggestions re: this column to me at: flippers@att.net. This column will resume its weekly schedule this month. To be added to the newsletter list e-mail me at the same address: flippers@att.net. Next edition is almost ready. 


Karen Sota is the volunteer media coordinator for the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach.