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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Sea turtle volunteers fear second Wrightsville Beach nest a total loss, cite pier lights as distraction

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Distracted by the lights from the nearby pier, a nest of Wrightsville Beach loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings likely failed to make it to the ocean this week, and some may have been handled by drunken revelers during their uncertain trek, according to the organizer of the local sea turtle observation group. 

After volunteers of the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project excavated the nest located next to the lifeguard stand north of Johnnie Mercer’s Pier on Saturday evening, Nancy Fahey, the group’s director, said that the nest was likely a total loss, as no unhatched turtles were discovered in the midst of the nest’s sandy soup of fragmented egg shells. The bleak discovery created an unfortunate start to what has otherwise been a productive sea turtle nesting season, as so far 10 nests have been found on Wrightsville Beach.

Of the 132 eggs the volunteers dug up on the Aug. 3 excavation, 20 were unhatched. The rest, Fahey believes, wandered towards Johnnie Mercer’s Pier and the lights from the pierhouse, where they became lost and are feared to have died. 

However, while the tracks led in the direction of the pier, Fahey said she didn’t personally find any turtle carcasses, though the birds that would have eaten them would likely have carried them off. Additionally, a report by one witness that the turtles were handled by people could have had a happy outcome if those people carried them to the ocean, she said.

As loggerhead nests hatch generally 50 days after they are laid, the sea turtle project had volunteers stationed until late at night by the nest, laid north of lifeguard stand no. 5,  near the Shearwater Street beach access no. 14. Volunteers dug a trench in front of the nest to help guide the turtles to the ocean.

Volunteers ended their monitoring of that nest at about 12:30 am on Thursday morning, Fahey said. At daybreak, one of the project volunteers that monitor the beach every day found that the nest had hatched after discovering a series of tracks from the tiny turtles that initially followed the dug-in path, but then turned towards the lights of the pier house..

Tracks showed that some were trapped in the sand fencing under the pier while others tried to crawl up the concrete ramps and steps, said Fahey, who feared they were eaten by birds and crabs.

While investigating the result of the hatching, Fahey said that she spoke with an employee of the pier who witnessed the swarm of turtles between 3 and 5 a.m., as well as a group of people who appeared to have handled some of the hatchlings. 

There appeared to be three men and a woman in the group and they appeared “inebriated,” Fahey said.

“Hopefully they are not swimming around in a bathtub somewhere,” she said.

Attempts to deliberately harm or disturb a sea turtle, her nest or its hatchlings is a crime that can net a year in prison or $10,000 fine, Fahey said. However, there has to be malicious intent, and people handling the sea turtles in an effort to get them to the ocean would likely not be prosecuted, she said.

Fahey said that before the anticipated hatching, she had communicated with the pier’s owner about the lights around the pier house, who said they needed to remain on for safety reasons. 

“We need to come up with some way to shield them from the lights,” said Fahey, who added that volunteers went door-to-door to houses near the nest before the anticipated hatching to request they keep their lights off until it had hatched. 

Fahey said she reported the incident to the NC Sea Turtle Project, she hasn’t yet reported to it Wrightsville Beach police, wanting to collect more information from Saturday’s nest excavation.

Sea turtles don’t often nest close to the piers, as the light will generally scare them off. However, a nest in 2016 on the south end of Johnnie Mercer’s Pier successfully hatched, she said.

While the loss of the nest was disturbing, Fahey said it was also disappointing that no one attempted to call the police or the sea turtle project. She said volunteers were ready and able to help distressed turtles and hatchlings.

The local sea turtle hotline is 833-4-TURTLE while the statewide hotline is 252-241-7367. Nancy Fahey can be reached at (910) 612-3047 for turtle related emergencies.

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