Wrightsville Beach could begin to see sea turtle nesting activity as early as May 1, said Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project coordinator Nancy Fahey.
Beginning May 1, Fahey will patrol the high tide line on the Wrightsville Beach strand every morning at sunrise by four-wheeler. She will be looking for large tracks in the sand, a sign that a sea turtle has crawled onshore overnight.
Fahey outlined details of the WBSTP during a meeting in the Fran Russ Recreation Center on April 11. On May 15, after two weeks of Fahey’s solo patrols, WBSTP volunteers will begin patrolling their own designated zones every morning. Fahey explained that patrolling at sunrise is necessary because female sea turtles typically come ashore at night, under the concealment of darkness and when the hot summer sun has set, to lay their eggs.
Peak nesting season for sea turtles in North Carolina is between June and August. The most common nesting turtle in North Carolina is the loggerhead sea turtle, which will deposit an average of 120 ping pong ball-sized eggs into its nest.
While adult sea turtles have few natural predators at sea, their population has been decreased considerably by problems related to plastic pollution and entanglement in commercial fishing nets. A fact sheet from the Fort Fisher Recreation Area states that some 11-12,000 turtles die each year from entanglement in commercial fishing nets.
This has prompted action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which has listed all sea turtles found in federal waters under the Endangered Species Act as either threatened or endangered.
Wrightsville Beach has seen a decrease in nesting activity in recent years; only three nests were discovered last year compared with 16 in 1999. Fahey said she believes this has to do with the relocation of Mason’s Inlet in 2002, rather than anything people are doing on the island.
“Although sometimes we get a surprise,” Fahey said. “In 2005 we were surprised by 12 nests.”
Once a nest is found, Fahey will rope the area off and carefully watch for signs of hatching behavior. Three days after a nest hatches, the nest is excavated to release any hatchlings that may be stuck in the sand and to collect data about the nest.
While most sunrise walks by volunteers do not lead to the discovery of nesting sea turtle tracks, WBSTP volunteers also monitor the beach for stranded or injured sea turtles, and many pick up litter as well. Project volunteer Ginger Taylor began a partner organization called Wrightsville Beach—Keep It Clean, wherein volunteers pick up litter and record their findings on a blog. During the summer of 2012, volunteers picked up more than 560 bags of litter from the beach strand.
Fahey encourages the public to report stranded, injured, or dead turtles to her at 910-791-9136. Boaters who spot an injured or sick sea turtle at sea are asked to contact the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at 252-241-7367. Stranded and injured turtles will be taken to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island for rehabilitation, and eventually, release.
The Sea Turtle Hospital is donation-funded and is currently in the process of constructing a new facility in Surf City.