Sea Turtle Nesting & Hatching Season in Emerald Isle

Emerald Isle Sea Turtle Nesting and Hatching Season

** UPDATED MAY 2016 **


Perhaps you have walked out of your Emerald Isle beach house and decided to take a stroll along the shore. During your walk you notice some flagging tape and a yellow post with a number on it, often times set back near the dunes.

What is it, you wonder? It's a loggerhead sea turtle nest site. The loggerhead sea turtle is the most common seasonal nester on the Emerald Isle beaches. The female comes ashore from Florida to North Carolina to lay her eggs in the sand at night. She will lay about 120 eggs, cover them in the sand, and then head back to the ocean. The eggs are left there in the warm sand on their own to develop for about 60 days. Then they will hatch, and the hatchlings will attempt to make their way to the ocean.

Because loggerhead sea turtles are a threatened and endangered species, the Emerald Isle Sea Turtle Protection Program tries to locate and protect the nest sites and help the hatchlings return to the surf. The program is comprised of about 80 volunteers who walk the entire 12.5 miles of the Emerald Isle beach early each morning from May 1 through August 31 searching for evidence of sea turtles that may have come ashore during the night to lay their eggs. The 200-350 pound sea turtles leave characteristic crawl marks in the sand up to 40 inches in width.

Once spotted, the volunteer walkers call in their findings, and the program coordinators quickly come to the site to check for the possibility of eggs being present. If found, the nest site is marked off by flagging and a yellow post with the nest number on it. The incubation period is anywhere from 50-70 days. On about day 50, the volunteers dig a trench about two feet wide and deep to help guide the hatchlings to the ocean. The flagging is extended along the trench. The exact time when the hatchlings will come out of the nest is unknown, so once the trench has been dug, volunteers start sitting at the nest from dusk to around midnight.

The hatchlings can emerge at anytime once the sand gets cool and quiet. The hatchlings can hear vibrations in the sand from noise and a lot of movement around the nest. They do not normally emerge during the daylight hours because of predators and the extreme heat of the beach sand. Nests have hatched during rain storms because it gets darker from cloud cover and the sand cools.

The trenches that are dug help guide the hatchling toward the ocean if the volunteers are not there to assist the hatching. The volunteers do not touch the hatchlings; they just guide them toward the ocean.

A hatchling will go toward the brightest thing they see which are often the lights on homes, the pier, and the street lights. At night, crabs await to try and get the newly emerged hatchlings. A hatchling has enough energy to swim for 4-5 days to make it to the Gulf Stream, which is a distance of 30-50 miles.

The exact locations and hatching dates are not advertised because of the Endangered Species Act. Members of the public are welcome to talk with the volunteers and to sit and wait along with the volunteers. If hatching occurs after dark, the volunteers request that there be no flash photography and no flashlights because of the potential harm to the hatchlings. Those items are a distraction and the hatchlings will by nature head toward the light.

Three to five days after the first hatchling emerges from the nest site, the volunteers conduct an excavation at the nest which usually occurs around 6:30-7:00p.m. Everything is dug up so that the hatched egg shells can be counted, undeveloped eggs can be discovered, and to release any hatchlings that were not strong enough to emerge on their own.

So, what if you're visiting us here in Emerald Isle and you happen to stumble upon some sea turtle tracks or spot a sea turtle on the beach? It is requested that you call the Emerald Isle Police at 252.354.2021. They will notify the volunteers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since the female turtles crawl onto the beach during the night, the volunteers request that if you see a nesting turtle late at night, please stay back at least 30 feet. Please don't use any flash cameras, flashlights, or cell phone cameras as these items frighten and distract the turtles, which often results in them abandoning the nesting effort. If you want to watch, sit downwind of the turtle and quietly observe. Be prepared to witness an incredible event!

Since the sea turtle nesting and hatching season occurs form May 1 through October 31, here are some helpful hints for visitors and residents on the beaches during this time:

  • Fill in all holes you (or your children) dig in the sand. Any holes that are dug in the sand can cause mother turtles to get stuck. It also can be dangerous for people walking at night as they could be seriously injured; so please fill up any holes that you dig in the sand.
  • Keep outside lights off at night. They disturb nesting mother turtles and distract hatching baby turtles toward the light but away from the ocean, which is where they need to go.
  • Remove tents, toys, and beach gear overnight. Leaving them out could interfere with the nesting mothers coming ashore and/or the emerging hatchlings' journey to the sea.
  • Pick up trash. Plastic bags are especially dangerous to sea turtles because they think they are jellyfish (their main food source) and will attempt to eat them (and then get sick).
  • Fireworks are illegal in North Carolina. The noise keeps the mother turtles from coming on shore to nest and disturbs the baby turtles during hatching.
  • Call the police (252.354.2021) if you see any sea turtle activity. Remember, if you see a nesting or hatching turtle or anyone disturbing a marked turtle nest, please contact the police.
The Town of Emerald Isle feels it is both a privilege and a responsibility to protect its natural environment and its inhabitants. We hope our visitors feel that way, too. We love sharing our beautiful beaches with you, and we appreciate your help in maintaining and protecting our natural beauty.

If you would like additional information about supporting or donating to the sea turtle program, contact The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital, P.O.Box 3012, Topsail Beach, NC 28445. The facility serves all of the turtle programs along the entire coast. It is also a great place to visit if you want to see recuperating sea turtles.

Have you seen any sea turtle activity while vacationing here in Emerald Isle? Tell us about it in our comment section. We always love hearing from you!

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All you need to know about sea turtle nesting and hatching season in Emerald Isle NC is right here! 

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