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June 22, 2009

Nesting Nights: Hoping for a Glimpse

Turtle Walk with BHIC intern Anna Frankel

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of posts about Emily and Kerri Lynn’s week-long trip to North Carolina in hopes of witnessing loggerhead sea turtles nesting.

Check out last year’s trip to see sea turtles hatching. Stay tuned for more updates this week.

Greetings! Oceana science fellow Kerri Lynn Miller and I are down on Bald Head Island, NC hoping to witness female loggerhead sea turtles laying their eggs.

Yesterday evening we attended the Bald Head Island Conservancy’s sea turtle talk and spoke about Oceana’s work to protect sea turtles. We asked folks to sign postcards telling the government to put turtle excluder devices (TEDs) in all trawl fisheries in the U.S., which accidentally capture hundreds of sea turtles every year.

After the talk ended, around 9:45, several dozen of us with red-cellophane-wrapped flashlights headed to the beach in the hopes of seeing a female come ashore. Spoiler alert: we didn’t see one. But hey, it was only the first night.

We waited until almost midnight on the beach stargazing and talking turtles with Anna, one of the BHIC’s six sea turtle interns this season. She clutched a walkie talkie, hoping to get word from the other interns patrolling the beach on utility vehicles that they’d come across a turtle.

Around 11:30 her radio crackled – “Anna, can you hear me?” the voice said. A long pause, and all of us were suddenly on the edge of our sandy blanket. “We ran out of gas,” returned the voice. Rats. We decided to call it a night. After hearing about last year’s huge crop of loggerhead nests on the island, Anna said she has been disheartened to see only a dozen so far this year.

When I was here last September waiting for hatchlings, BHIC had a record-setting year, with more than 100 nests — they typically have between 60 and 70. So far this year, only 12 loggerheads have nested and they’ve seen 13 false crawls, which is when a female comes ashore but returns to the water without laying her eggs because she is startled by predators, or white lights, or too-cool sand, or any number of other factors.

Loggerheads nest only every two or three years, so that’s one variable, but there’s another at play this year: beach erosion. While the channel near BHI is being dredged to make way for larger ships to come through the port, the island’s nesting beaches have rapidly eroded in only a few months, alarming residents and BHIC staffers – particularly the sea turtle conservationists.

Stay tuned – maybe we’ll catch a mama turtle tonight.