5 Fascinating Facts About Sea Turtles

5 Fascinating Facts About Sea Turtles 

Updated June 2020

Just a reminder that 'tis the season—sea turtle nesting season, that is. May 1 through October 31 on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina is when female sea turtles return to the beach of their birth to start the circle of life all over again. The sea turtles come ashore this time of year and find a good place to lay their clutch (their group of eggs). Then, it's a waiting game until the hatchlings emerge and make the most harrowing journey of their lives from the comfort of the nest to the freedom of the ocean. Getting there is the hardest part, as there are so many potential obstacles that could deter or even end the journey prematurely. It's quite an adventure, to say the least.  

Learn more about these incredible aquatic reptiles now so that when you arrive at your Emerald Isle rental, you are ready to do your part in protecting these precious seasonal visitors. You never know when you'll walk by a marked sea turtle nest, spot a nesting sea turtle on the beach, or see the tell-tale turtle crawl tracks that lead from a nest in the sand back to the water.

Now it's your turn. How many of these sea turtle facts do you know? Let's find out!


Sea turtle navigation in the ocean

1. Sea turtles can sense the Earth's magnetic field and use it to navigate.

It's like they have their own internal GPS system. Research has shown that they can detect the angle and intensity of the magnetic field, which is unique to every place on this earth. They also use it in their migration, covering thousands and thousands of miles of open ocean. These aquatic reptiles have even been known to find tiny islands in the middle of nowhere. That's pretty amazing, don't you think? 

Female sea turtle laying eggs on the beach

2. A sea turtle can live to be up to 100 years old and it probably takes 30 to 35 of those years for it to reach full reproductive maturity. 

Sea turtles are complicated! It's hard to determine their exact age other than by using growth charts and size estimates. According to David Godfrey, Executive Director at the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Nevis, that's one of the reasons that sea turtles are so vulnerable. 

"There are so many obstacles to their survival before reaching that age. The adult sea turtle population is very valuable within the ecosystem, because it takes so long for them to get there. Then they can continue to lay eggs until they die. Once they are fully mature, sea turtles’ only real predators are humans," explains Godfrey.

Sea turtle mating season occurs every 2-3 years in shallow waters. Then begins the ancient reproductive ritual of the female as she returns to her birthplace. Remember that internal GPS navigation system we spoke of earlier? It's that same system that leads female sea turtles right back to the beach of their birth—no matter where they may be previous to that, how far away it is, or the decades have passed since they've last been there. 

It is also widely believed that hatchlings imprint the unique qualities of their natal beach while still in the nest and/or during their first trip from the nest to the sea. Beach characteristics used may include smell, low-frequency sound, magnetic fields, the characteristics of seasonal offshore currents and celestial cues. Simply amazing.

Sea turtle hatchling heading from nest to sea

3. The sex of a baby sea turtle is determined by the temperature of the eggs in the nest during a small window in the gestational period.

Cooler eggs, like those buried deeper down in the sand or more in the shade, become male. Warmer eggs, like those buried closer to the surface or in a sunnier area, become female. This is called Temperature-Dependent Sex Determination (TSD). Who knew? This is true of other reptiles, as well. Consequently, conservationists and wildlife managers leave turtle eggs in their original location whenever possible so that sex ratios are determined naturally.

Experts are seeing an increase in the number of female sea turtles, which is being attributed to the effects of global warming. What experts don't know is what this translates into when it comes to the well-being and survival of the sea turtle population in general. Time will tell. Stay tuned!

Sea turtle hatchling predators and obstacles

4. The survival of a sea turtle hatchling goes against all odds (almost). 

A clutch of 80-150 eggs, depending on the species, is laid once the female sea turtle reaches the beach where she herself was born. She exits the sea and drags herself ashore. Using her rear flippers, she digs her nest and deposits the eggs, which closely resemble ping-pong balls. 

When egg-laying is complete, the turtle covers the eggs, camouflages the nest site and returns to the ocean. She doesn't attend to the nest nor does she ever return to it. Nesting turtles may come to shore several times in a nesting season to repeat the process, but that's about it. The incubation period is about 2 months before the hatchlings emerge, when they are left to fend for themselves and locate water in this brave new world. 

It's estimated that only 1 in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings will survive. Some estimates indicate odds of 1 in 10,000. Not encouraging numbers, right? From the distractions of artificial light, treacherous holes in the sand, and discarded trash to predators such as birds, crabs, raccoons and even sharks, a sea turtle's journey from sand to sea definitely goes against the odds of success and survival. This mass exodus from the nest usually occurs at night, and the hatchlings use the bright, open view of the night sky over the water to find their way to the sea. There is some safety in numbers, but not much.

Marked sea turtle nest on the beach

5. Your Emerald Isle, NC beach vacation could be hazardous to a sea turtle's health, but it doesn't have to be. 

Nor should it! The surviving sea turtles have worked hard to get where they are and survive to this point in their lives. And at this stage, humans are really their only predator. Please don't be a hazard to the sea turtle population. Did we mention that most species of sea turtles are now threatened or extinct? Sadly, they are. A lot of that is thanks to human activity and behaviors. 

So what can you do to prevent any kind of harm to sea turtles, their nests and their hatchlings during your next NC beach vacation? Here are some things to keep in mind.


✓ Do not disturb marked or unmarked sea turtle nests. 

Leave them be, and please don't touch or disturb the nest or the eggs. Contact the local sea turtle watch and protection program if the nest is not already marked, so it can be monitored and protected until the hatchlings emerge.

✓ Limit your use of plastic. 

From straws to baggies to water bottles, trash gets left behind after a beach vacation and ends up washing into the ocean where sea turtles can mistake it for food or get tangled up in it. Both can be fatal. Consider more eco-friendly, reusable options for the sake of our earth in general and specifically the sea turtle population.

✓ Fill in any and all holes you and your family dig in the sand.

Mother turtles can get stuck and so can newly-hatched sea turtles. They don't need any more obstacles than they already have to get from the beach to the ocean. If your kids or family are digging in the sand while they're playing, building sandcastles, or getting beach gear set up for the day, please be sure to check that you've filled in any holes you've made in the sand before you leave.

✓ Minimize your use of chemical-based sunscreen protection. 

We know this goes against the usual advice to slather it on before a day on the beach, but consider your options. Sunscreen and sunblock lotions and sprays give off a strong toxic chemical into the waters that can negatively impact the sea life— plants and animals included. When large numbers of people are swimming or just in the water in general while wearing these chemicals, they end up changing the chemical composition of those waters. That's bad for the plant life, the fish, and the turtles, among others. Cover up with clothing and use umbrellas instead. Also look for biodegradable sunscreen products that are environmentally friendly and free of harsh chemicals. These safe sunscreen products are recommended for use around sea turtles and other marine life.

✓ Clean up after your beach day by picking up trash found on the beach and in the water.

Whether it's yours or someone else's, helping to minimize trash left on the beach is a huge help. This is especially true of plastic bags, which turtles can easily confuse with jellyfish—their main food source—then eat them and get sick. Also don't forget to remove your beach gear, toys, and tents before leaving the beach each day.

✓ Reduce light pollution from your Emerald Isle rental and on the beach. 

Light pollution? Yes, light pollution. Whether it’s the outdoor lights from your oceanfront Emerald Isle rental or nighttime beach goers using flashlights or flash photography, artificial white and yellow lights are incredibly disturbing to sea turtles and can guide them off-course. It can cause nesting turtles to flee the beach and return to the ocean without dropping their eggs. And what’s worse, it is actually deadly to hatchlings. They are attracted to the light and instead of heading toward the ocean, they follow the lights and end up in backyards, pools, sand dunes, and even in parking lots and on roads. If you have an oceanfront beach vacation rental, please turn off all exterior lights that face the shore. It helps a lot!


5 Fascinating Facts About Sea Turtles

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