25 Sep 2019
Do you daydream about all the things you want to do and see the next time you visit Holden Beach? Maybe you think about your favorite restaurant or ice cream shop, the most unique gift shop, your secret fishing spot, that early morning walk on the beach looking for seashells, or that amazing sunrise view from the deck of your vacation rental. After you read this, you might just add sea turtles to your list and being around for their annual visits to Holden Beach!
A couple of years ago, we shared this Holden Beach Turtle Story with you — about the dangers facing sea turtles and how you, as visitors to our beautiful North Carolina beaches, can help protect them. For this post, we had a visit with Pat Cusak, Program Coordinator with the Holden Beach Turtle Watch (aka Turtle Patrol) organization, so we could teach you even more about these amazing ocean creatures.
Holden Beach Turtle Watch
Pat Cusak has been working with turtles for 13 years, and you can tell by speaking with him that he is really passionate about the work he and the Turtle Watch do for sea turtles. The Holden Beach Turtle Watch is a non-profit conservation organization that is staffed by 65 volunteer members. Overseen by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the Turtle Patrol monitors and protects the Holden Beach sea turtle population.
Sea Turtles Nesting on the Beach
Sea turtles spend most of their time in the water, and their days are filled with feeding and resting. Turtle nesting season, though, between the middle of May and the middle of August, brings more activity. During this time is when mama turtles will come onto the beach to dig a nest and lay her eggs.
Female sea turtles lay two to seven nests in a season, though the average is three nests per turtle. Each nest has about 120 eggs. After her active nesting season, the mama turtle then takes two to three years off to recharge her reproductive system, depending on the quality and quantity of her food sources. “We had one mama come back the following year to lay again – she must have had a really good food source,” Cusak said.
Once the eggs are laid in the nest, the female never comes back to that nest. She will return to the beach about 12-13 days later to lay another nest, but in typical reptilian behavior, in a different location.
Searching for and Monitoring Nests
The Holden Beach Turtle Patrol has an ATV rider that hits the beach every morning by 5:00 AM. The driver cruises the beach strand from the Intracoastal Waterway on the East End all the way down the eight to nine miles of Holden Beach shoreline to the Intracoastal Waterway on the West End.
When turtle tracks and the appearance of a nest are discovered, the driver calls the morning caller at the Turtle Patrol, who then puts a team of three to five people together to go find the eggs. Sometimes it’s a false nest, in the event the mama started the digging process and was spooked off for some reason, as is frequently the case, while preparing to lay her eggs. But once she begins the process, she goes into a trance-like state and continuously lays her eggs for about 30 minutes.While driving, the patrol looks for tracks a mama turtle would make coming out of the water and for disturbed sand where the nest would have been dug and covered up. There are always two sets of tracks – one track of her coming out of the water to her selected Holden Beach nesting area, and a second track of her going back out into the Atlantic Ocean.
If Turtle Patrol volunteers find eggs in the nest, they will leave it alone as long as it’s in a safe location on the beach. If it’s too close to the high tide line or near a walkway, they will move the nest to a safer location by placing the eggs into a big cooler in layers of 40 until the nest is empty. They take full measurements of the top, middle, and bottom of the nest, so they can recreate the nest once it is moved. The last egg taken out of the nest is the first egg back in the relocated nest.
Sea Turtle DNA Analysis and Data Tracking
From each nest, the Turtle Patrol team selects one egg as the “DNA Egg.” The eggshell is then sent to the University of Georgia, where they analyze the mama sea turtle's mitochondrial DNA. This gives the team unique DNA data for that turtle and allows them to track how many nests she lays in a season, how big her clutches are, how often she lays, etc. It also provides various data about the health of the species and allows us to know when turtles are returning to Holden Beach (or other NC beaches) to nest again.
Per state and federal regulations, once the eggs hatch, the team has to wait 72 hours before going to inventory the nest. Cusak says, by this point, many of the hatchlings have already found their own way to the ocean. The team guides any hatchlings that may be stuck in hard sand or unable to get out of the nest.
Cusak said the survival rate of the hatchlings is usually around 85%, a number which varies from beach to beach. “Fishermen say they have never seen as many turtles as they have seen this year.”
Sea Turtle Data (as of September 2019)
In 2019, there were 105 nests discovered and monitored in Holden Beach. With only 37% of the DNA assigned thus far, the nests belonged to 27 unique females, with 11,600 sea turtle eggs counted and 8,544 hatched eggs. The mean clutch size (eggs per nest) was 119.8 eggs.
There were 2,354 nests in 2019 throughout our state. Of those, 2,286 were Loggerheads, 65 were Green, 2 were Kemps Ridley, and 1 was unknown. Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Cape Lookout National Seashore accounted for 400 of those nests, Caswell Beach and Oak Island had 278, Topsail Island spotted 178 nests, and Fort Fisher had 160. South of Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach had 49 nests and Sunset Beach had 19.
You can see that as you move south down the North Carolina coast, the number of nests decrease, a fact attributed to the shape of our coastline – the northern beaches are closer to the Gulfstream while our southeastern coastal corner in Holden Beach is further away from the Gulfstream.
Sea Turtles and Hurricanes
If you live at the beach you learn about hurricanes. Cusak reported that the sand pushed onto Holden Beach by the angry ocean water of the recent Hurricane Dorian caused five to six of the nests on the beach before the storm to get covered with two to three feet of sand. Although Turtle Patrol volunteers dug them out, the nests have not fared well since unhatched eggs need to be able to breathe, too, a difficult task when submerged in water for long.
According to Cusak, a couple of nests remain further back on the beach, so the team is waiting to see if they will hatch successfully. It was a rough end to the hatch season with the “triple whammy” of Black Moon Tides being very high in the end of July, King Tides (New Moon Tides) in the end of August, and then Hurricane Dorian the first part of September.
Injured Sea Turtles
The Turtle Patrol also helps injured sea turtles. They have a dedicated stranding team, and the emergency phone is carried 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When the on-call stranding team receives a call for a sick, injured, or dead turtle, volunteers get to the reported location as quickly as possible. If the turtle is dead upon their arrival, they take shell measurements, photos, and notes about any obvious wounds. All of this data is included in a stranding report that is submitted to the federal level.
If the team finds an injured turtle, volunteers call the NC Wildlife Resources Commission to let them know they are transporting a turtle to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island. The state office alerts the hospital and the team alerts them again when they’re within 15 minutes. Upon arrival, they triage the turtle however is needed - they have fluids, a Doppler heartbeat monitor, and other critical care tools and supplies on hand for the turtles. “There’s actually not a lot you can do initially. Usually if they make it through the night, they do pretty well after that,” Cusak said, based on his experience of helping weekly at the hospital for five years.
How You Can Help Sea Turtles
If you see a sea turtle on the beach, contact the Holden Beach Turtle Patrol at (910) 754-0766. This is a 24-hour emergency number, but basically entails calling the Turtle Patrol if you see a sea turtle of any age or type on the beach.
Between May 1 and October 31, please turn off all oceanfront lights outside of your vacation rental, including the carport lights and closing interior windows/blinds at night if possible.
If you see a turtle on the beach, stand back. Stay behind the turtle and don’t let it see you. It is likely a mama turtle there to lay her eggs, and if you try to get near her and/or take photos of her, you can spook her off. Call the Turtle Patrol, and once they arrive to secure the area, they will be happy to allow you to get close to witness the egg-laying once it’s safe for the mama turtle.
Pick up your trash, fill in any holes you dig, and remove your beach equipment every night between 6:00 PM and 7:00 AM. The beach equipment removal is a Town of Holden Beach ordinance.
Learn More about Sea Turtles
If you are visiting Holden Beach in June, July, or August, you can enjoy a Turtle Talk with the Turtle Patrol on Wednesdays at 7:00 PM at the Holden Beach Town Hall at 110 Rothschild Street. On Wednesday afternoons, there is also Children’s Turtle Time (3-6 years old) that include stories, crafts, and activities. Lighthouse Gifts has t-shirts available for sale, with proceeds benefitting the Holden Beach Turtle Watch Program. You can also visit the Turtle Patrol website for more fun facts about turtles.
We Hope to See You Soon!
So, the next time you are visiting us in Holden Beach, you can add “look for sea turtle tracks in the sand” to your vacation to-do list. How cool would it be to be the one who discovers a mama turtle or an undiscovered nest?