Up and down Wrightsville Beach, rectangular plots marked by orange tape indicate sea turtle nests buried in the sand. If the plots seem more plentiful than normal, it is because they are — by a record-setting amount.
Fifteen sea turtle nests have been found on Wrightsville Beach as of July 27, the most the island has ever documented by this time in the season, which begins in May. The highest number of nests in one summer was 16 in 1999, but six of those were discovered in August.
“It’s amazing,” said Nancy Fahey, project coordinator for the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project. “I’ve just been completely incredulous at the amount of activity we’ve had.”
Nesting is higher than normal all along North Carolina’s coastline, Fahey said — volunteers usually count about 800 nests and this year they’ve already counted 1,227. But locally, only Wrightsville has experience such a spike in activity. Nesting on nearby Figure Eight Island and Masonboro Island is closer to average, Fahey said.
No one knows why so many turtles have nested this summer, she said. She described turtle nesting as “cyclical for the population at large” because they come ashore to nest every three to four years.
Nine false crawls — when a turtle crawls ashore but doesn’t nest — have also occurred at Wrightsville Beach.
“That’s about right,” Fahey said. “It’s not uncommon to see a one-to-one ratio [of false crawls to nests].”
Fahey does attribute part of Wrightsville Beach’s nesting success to the town’s beach patrol police officers. The officers have often been the first to encounter a turtle or a nest, she said, and they notify her right away. They have also interceded on several occasions to stop beachgoers from taking photos, getting too close or otherwise interfering with sea turtles when they come ashore, which is a violation of the protection afforded to loggerhead sea turtles by both North Carolina state law and the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
“They’ve been exceedingly helpful this summer,” she said. “They’ve been excited to see the turtles on the beach and enthusiastic about being a part of it. It’s really brought a whole new aspect to their jobs, and to what we do as well.”
Fahey is also relying on a large team of volunteers to walk the beach every morning, looking for sea turtle activity, and, starting last week, to sit with nests that are close to hatching. The predicted incubation period for a nest is 55-70 days, she said, so volunteers start “nest sitting” around day 50.
Fahey likes to put six volunteers at each nest, because, she explained, “the smallest nest we’ve found so far had 119 eggs in it, and when you’re trying to deal with that many hatchlings on the beach at the same time, it’s hard to do it with just four people.”
With the amount of activity this summer, volunteers have sometimes found themselves multitasking, monitoring both hatchlings and adults. Last Thursday, volunteers were nest sitting when they saw an adult turtle come ashore. While she didn’t nest there, volunteers found a nest the next morning on a different stretch of beach, so they believe she was successful.
The following night, July 22, Wrightsville Beach’s first hatchlings emerged from a nest at the island’s north end, near Shell Island Resort. Three nights later, as beachgoers looked on, volunteers excavated the nest to document the number of empty egg shells, which tells them how many turtles emerged from the nest, and released hatchlings that remained inside the nest chamber.
Sometimes, the turtle nest excavations only uncover one or two hatchlings, but during this excavation volunteers recovered 16 hatchlings from the bottom of the nest chamber. Fahey said the fine-grained texture of the sand at the north end might have trapped them.
“That was a very exciting one,” she said.