Before we can protect a sea turtle nest, they have to find it.
Laying the Nest
A sea turtle’s life begins on the beach. Sea turtles nest, or lay eggs, throughout the summer. Nesting season usually lasts from May to September, reaching peak activity in late June and July. The female loggerhead comes ashore at night and drags her body far up the beach above the high tide line. Here she digs a hole about 18″ deep with her rear flippers and begins laying her eggs.
The nesting process is a complex and vulnerable time for a mother sea turtle. She carefully selects a nest site and may sometimes be frightened away by bright lights and beach activity. Predators such as foxes, raccoons, and ghost crabs abound on the beach and may devour her eggs even as they are deposited into the nest.
On average, 120 golf ball-sized, tough, leathery eggs are laid in the nest. The turtle covers her eggs completely with sand and returns to the sea.
Finding the Nest
Since most nesting occurs at night, scientists rely on using trails and tracks to identify where a nest has been laid and by what species. A track is an impression of a single flipper. Long lines of tracks showing an animal’s movement and behavior are called trails. Scientists measure the width of a sea turtle’s track, called the straddle, as well as note the crawl pattern of each species to tell what kind of turtle laid a nest.
Sometimes scientists get lucky and are out watching at night when the turtles come up to nest. Then they get video like this one. It’s red because they are using red light so they can see but they do not to disturb the turtle.
Video courtesy Bald Head Island Conservancy.
Threats from Humans
Unfortunately, sea turtles are threatened by people and their activities in coastal areas. What were once long stretches of open beach where turtles could nest are now developed areas. Bright lights discourage females from coming ashore at night, and confuse young turtles after they leave the nest. Debris and other ocean pollution also create life-threatening problems for these ancient reptiles. Sea turtles have always fascinated people, yet we still have much to learn about them. As we learn more, we can find better ways to help protect them.
If you see a sea turtle nesting or hatching:
- Enjoy this event from a distance. Many turtles scare easily and may stop the nesting process and return to the sea, which will stop the development of the eggs.
- Take note of the location and report it to the local police department. They will contact the area’s sea turtle coordinator.
- Please do not take flash photos of her! Scientists use infrared cameras to get photos so they do not disrupt her night vision.
- Do not put your hands on or near the turtle. Any distractions may frighten and disorient her, causing her to return to the ocean before completely covering and camouflaging her nest.
- Also please refrain from giving out the location of a nesting turtle to anyone other than the authorities.
- If you see a nest hatching, leave them alone. You can report it to the local police department. They will contact the area’s sea turtle coordinator to assist in the hatching.