Volunteers start scanning Wrightsville Beach for turtle tracks

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On May 1, Nancy Fahey, project coordinator for the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project, began cruising the beach strand on a four-wheeler, scanning the sand for telltale signs of turtle nesting. Two weeks later, volunteers on foot will join her daily efforts. Fahey said the success of nesting season is still greatly influenced by the public.

Volunteers will start walking the beach every morning at sunrise from mid-May to the end of August, Fahey said, looking for turtle tracks or stranded turtles. She is already on the lookout for tracks because the mild winter could spur the sea turtles to nest earlier than usual, she noted.

Despite the volunteers’ daily monitoring, it is often the beachgoers who come across turtle activity, from stranded turtles to nesting turtles and turtle tracks. In all cases, Fahey said, people should immediately call the sea turtle hotline: 252-241-7367.

The number connects to the statewide sea turtle monitoring program, which will then contact and dispatch volunteers locally to address the situation. Calling that number facilitates the quickest and most efficient response, Fahey said.

“They get the closest group to respond, depending on where it is,” she said. “That number is answered continuously so at any given time a caller should be able to reach someone.”

Fahey also encouraged fishermen who have accidentally hooked a turtle to call the hotline instead of cutting the turtle loose themselves. Volunteers will make sure the lines and hooks are completely removed from the turtle and check the turtle for injuries.

Fishermen will not get in trouble for catching the turtle, Fahey said.

“There’s a lot of confusion about this. It’s called incidental catch, and that’s not something that you can get into legal trouble for,” she said.

When Fahey or other volunteers are dispatched to a possible nest, they rope it off so beachgoers won’t sit on it, or, “even more horrifically, drive an umbrella down into the nest cavity,” she said.

If they are responding to a stranded turtle, they capture and safely transport the animal to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City if it is sick or injured. If it is dead, they file a report with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and NOAA detailing the size and type of turtle, where it was found and what might have caused its death.

Beachgoers should not try to approach a stranded or nesting turtle, Fahey emphasized. Turtles can take as long as 90 minutes to nest, and any kind of distraction during that time could scare them to abandon the nest laying and go back to sea.

Last summer, volunteers found four nests on Wrightsville Beach, and 11 false crawls — turtle tracks without a nest. Sometimes, Fahey said, false crawls occur because “they’re just trying to get a good location on the beach that they feel is ideal for the success of their nest.”

But other times it is because people approached the turtles and disturbed them, which, even if it is only out of curiosity, is illegal, Fahey said.

Last year’s ratio of false crawls to nests was higher than normal for Wrightsville Beach, she added, but much of that was due to one turtle in particular — a three-flippered turtle Fahey affectionately called Peggy.

The turtle is missing one of her rear flippers, a handicap she couldn’t overcome despite multiple tries. Volunteers’ efforts to walk the beach at night and find her were unsuccessful. Turtles typically nest every few years, Fahey said, so she hopes eventually Peggy will learn how to do it.

“They excavate their nests with their rear flippers, and she just didn’t seem to be able to figure out how to manage her disability. They can do it, they just have to figure out how,” Fahey said.

Other human distractions like streetlights can also affect nesting and hatching. Several streetlights near Wrightsville’s beach accesses caused problems previously, Fahey said, and she is concerned the problem could be exacerbated by the town’s ongoing transition to LED streetlights.

“If they’re even brighter, that’s going to be even more of a problem,” she said, adding that she plans to meet with town manager Tim Owens to find a compromise, like shielding the lights.

“There are ways for us to meet in the middle,” she said. “Protect the nesting turtles but also provide good lighting, a safety concern for humans.”

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