Members of N.E.S.T. are absolutely thrilled with the beginning of the sea turtle nesting season on the Outer Banks. We have started off with a really big bang! We have already had two mother sea turtles lay nests on our beaches. This is the earliest nesting here in about seven years. And, what special nests they have been. ATV driver Tom Chisholm came across a mother loggerhead still covering up her eggs on the beach early in his ride. It is always special when you get to see the mother.
It is so unusual. After carefully and thoroughly covering her eggs she crawled to the water’s edge, put her head down and plunged into the big wave. The nest was in a safe place so we did not move the eggs and do not know how many eggs are in the nest. A mother loggerhead laid a nest at this same place two years ago and she too was seen early in the morning. Perhaps it was the same turtle. Loggerheads can lay one to six nests in a season; then will not nest for 2 to 3 years.
Researchers from the University of Georgia are examining the DNA of nesting loggerhead sea turtles on the Atlantic coast. In the past we have supplied them with an unhatched egg at nest excavation. They have found that the DNA can deteriorate during incubation so now we are giving them one egg when we discover the nest.
We hate to sacrifice even one egg but they will learn so much from it. By the end of the season we will know when and where this mother turtle came ashore to lay other nests (hopefully in the area that we patrol). If she comes in two to three years later we will again know if it is the same turtle. She will probably remain within a mile of the shore this season and hopefully come ashore again in 12 to 15 days to lay another nest. This could be a really big year for us.
But, by far the biggest surprise of the year and probably to all of the members of the N.E.S.T. organization was the little mother that came ashore the next morning. This turtle came ashore at 10 in the morning. That should have been a clue that this was something special. It was for Matthew Godfrey. He is the Sea Turtle Project Biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission. He asked for pictures and confirmed the amazing event. Daylight nesting is a common behavior of the smallest and rarest of the rare sea turtle – the Kemps Ridley. They migrate in our waters and we have had many wash ashore in trouble but never, ever a nesting Kemps. There have been only two documented Kemps Ridley nests on the North Carolina beaches. A Kemps nested in 1992 on Oak Island, North Carolina. Another one nested at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina in 2003. Matthew said this could be a turtle that hatched in the Oak Island nest in 1992. Kemps Ridleys are sexually mature between 10 and 15 years of age. If we had had the information that the Georgia researchers are capturing from our eggs we would have known for sure.
This species has been brought back from the very brink of extinction. In the early 1940s these turtles were known only to nest on the beaches near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico in the Gulf of Mexico. They often nest in what is called an arribadas. Hundreds even thousands of turtles come in to nest on the same beach within a 72 hour period. One day in the 1940’s, 42,000 turtles came ashore to nest on the same beach at the same time. Matthew reported that in the 1985 there were only 702 total Kemps Ridley nests recorded on that same beach. With the enactment of the Endangered Species Act and the many concerned and conservation aware citizens of the world the sea turtles have begun to make a remarkable recovery. In 2009, there were 20,000 Kemps Ridley nests in Mexico and 200 in South Padre Island, Texas (up from less than 20 per year in the 1990s). These animals are amazingly resilient. They were here before the dinosaurs and with our help will be here forever.
With the tragic oil spill threatening the beaches where these rare animals nest we are thrilled to have one mother turtle nesting as far away from the oil spill as she could get. We can only hope and pray that the awful oil spill in the Gulf will not diminish the recovery of these animals. They have overcome so many obstacles throughout the ages. Hopefully this will be a minor setback in their recovery. You know that with the help of N.E.S.T. in a couple of months there will be many little Kemps Ridley hatchlings swimming to the Gulf Stream from the northern beaches of the Outer Banks. We will report each step along the way. We as concerned conservationists are appalled by the disastrous oil situation in the Gulf. It has destroyed and will continue to destroy many birds, marine animals, fish and plants but most importantly lives of the people of the area who have made their lively hood from the Gulf for many generations. Our hearts and hopes go out to them as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Our little Kemps Ridley nest is a beacon of hope for all of the survivors of this devastation.
(Written by Jackie Orsaluk, N.E.S.T. Volunteer)