North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Becoming a Sea Turtle Volunteer: 101

Author: NCWRC blogger/Thursday, June 21, 2018/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Education, Wildlife Management, Wildlife Watching

Becoming a Sea Turtle Volunteer: 101

Being a sea turtle volunteer is not for the faint of heart – it’s hard work throughout much of the year, yet it is also rewarding work, particularly when you consider that the five species of sea turtles that are found along North Carolina’s coastline are all federally listed as threatened or endangered species. So, they need all the help they can get, which is where sea turtle volunteers really step up to the plate.

Nest Monitoring

Loggerhead, green, Kemp’s ridley, leatherback  and hawksbill sea turtles are known to nest on North Carolina’s beaches from mid-April to early September. Given the fact that North Carolina’s coastline stretches for approximately 300 miles, the Wildlife Commission’s two sea turtle biologists rely heavily on a cadre of volunteers who monitor many beaches daily searching for sea turtle nesting activity.

In addition to cooperators with state and federal parks, reserves and refuges, more than 1,000 volunteers spend their early morning hours each day, rain or shine, during the sea turtle nesting season, searching for tell-tale signs that a giant, lumbering reptile has crept out of the sea in the darkness of the night, excavated her way through about a foot or more of sand, laid 120 eggs on average in the nest cavity, and made her back to the ocean.

The first sign they look for is a “crawl,” which marks the location in the sand where a female sea turtle has come on to the beach. When they find one, volunteers then look to see if the crawl resulted in a nest. Sometimes, turtles may crawl on the beach without laying eggs. These non-nesting crawls are also called “false crawls,” “half-moons,” and “dry-runs.” In most cases, volunteers can tell a difference in a false crawl and one that resulted in a nest being dug out. Sometimes female sea turtles will have several false crawls in multiple nights before successfully digging out a nest and laying her eggs.

Volunteers will verify that a nesting crawl is indeed a true nest by carefully and gently digging into the sand until they reach the top egg in the clutch. Once verified, volunteers will carefully cover the eggs with moist sand and mark the location with stakes, flagging tape and a sign. In some places where predation from predators, such as foxes and raccoons, is likely, the volunteers will also install wire mesh below the surface of the sand, which deters predators but allows small hatchlings to escape the sand at the end of incubation. Marking off nest locations helps keep humans and pets off the nests.

It takes about two months for eggs to incubate in the sand. The incubation period varies throughout the nesting season and is largely dependent on weather conditions. Like nesting female turtles, sea turtle hatchlings wait for the cover of darkness to emerge from their sandy cocoon. As the time draws close for sea turtles to emerge, volunteers monitor the nest closely each night, looking for hatching activity. Volunteers hope for a turtle “boil,” which is the rapid emergence of hatchlings all at one time. Three days after the majority of hatchlings emerge from the nest, the volunteers will open up the egg cavity, to inventory the contents and liberate any live hatchlings that may be stuck in the nest cavity. The information from the inventory helps the Wildlife Commission’s biologists understand trends in reproductive success of sea turtles in North Carolina.

Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage

The work of a volunteers isn’t merely to document nesting success or lack thereof. Volunteers also comb beaches and respond to alerts regarding dead and injured sea turtles that are in the water or come ashore along North Carolina beaches. For sea turtles that are injured, North Carolina has two full-time rehabilitation centers in Manteo and Surf City that successfully treat and release dozens of sick or injured sea turtles each year. Additionally, the N.C. Aquariums in Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher will help provide care to injured or sick turtles when needed, and staff from the NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine provide excellent support for the successful treatment of live stranded turtles. Volunteers must follow strict guidelines outlined by the Commission’s sea turtle biologists to ensure the rapid and safe transportation of sea turtles to an approved rehab facility. For turtles that are found dead on the coast, volunteers collect valuable data on the size, location, cause of death, etc., and report their findings to the Commission’s sea turtle biologists.

Want to help sea turtles in North Carolina?

Become a volunteer!

Report sea turtle activity that you see

Remove all beach furniture from beach at the end of the day

Fill in all holes in the sand at the end of the day

Turn out lights while on the beach at night.

Do not disturb nesting females

Pick up your trash

Respect No Wake Zones and keep a respectable speed while boating

Download our “Help Protect Sea Turtles” pamphlet.

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