For the first time in 16 years, Leatherback hatchlings skitter to the sea

By on August 29, 2023

A Leatherback sea turtle hatchling entering the ocean. (credit: Cape Hatteras National Seashore)

Cape Hatteras National SeashoreΒ 

After 70 days of incubation, 19 hatchlings started their journey to the ocean from the first Leatherback sea turtle nest found on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in 16 years.

On June 19, a nest with 93 eggs was laid on the beach and found in the early morning on a routine turtle patrol on Ocracoke Island. The Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest sea turtle in the world, weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring up to 6.5 feet as adults.

 

Since keeping record, here’s data from Leatherback nests that have had hatch activity on Cape Hatteras National Seashore:
  • 2007: Ocracoke Island
  • 2002: Hatteras Island
  • 2000: Hatteras Island

 

Now that our local sea turtle nests are starting to hatch, here’s how to help:

How Unattended Beach Equipment Impacts Sea Turtles and What You Can Do to Help
  • During sea turtle nesting season (May-October), items left on the beach can cause disturbance that may deter a nesting female from laying her eggs or may cause entanglement which compromises the health of the turtle.
  • Specific items of concern include chairs (any), canopies, volleyball nets and fishing equipment.
  • Any obstacles that sea turtles face on the beach have the potential to alter their perception of the nesting habitat and they may decide to nest elsewhere or the nest may be laid too close to the water’s edge.
  • Be sure to put-out any beach fires with sufficient water; fires left burning and unattended may cause harm to the nesting females.
  • Items left overnight on the beach are considered abandoned and are subject to removal if determined to directly alter the behavior of wildlife (i.e. sea turtles).

 

 

 

How Artificial Lights Impact Sea Turtles and What You Can Do to Help
  • For thousands of years, people have been turning their eyes upward to the stars. Whether to navigate their way across vast oceans, search for answers to the mysteries of life, or provide inspiration to create timeless works of art, the night sky has always been visible. But ever increasing light pollution impacts our view-artificial lights are decreasing the visibility of stars and other natural sky phenomena.
  • Light pollution also affects natural habitats and wildlife. For nocturnal animals, stray artificial light means the disruption of habitat. Animals often depend on darkness in order to hunt, conceal their location, navigate, or reproduce. This is made worse by the fact that many species have vision far more sensitive than human vision. Plants too can be affected by artificial light- you may have noticed that a tree beneath a bright streetlight loses its leaves later in autumn than other trees.
  • Sea turtles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore are affected by light pollution. Every summer, threatened and endangered sea turtles come to the Outer Banks to make their nests in the sand, crawling up on the beach at night to lay their eggs. Dark night provides them protection from predators. When faced with a light polluted beach, sea turtles will sometimes return to the sea and not lay their eggs.
  • From the nests that are laid, sea turtle hatchlings emerge at night to begin their journey down to the ocean’s edge. Natural darkness is key for their survival. Instead of being deterred by light, like their mothers, hatchlings will use light cues in order to find their way to the water safely. The young turtles instinctively crawl toward the brightest horizon. In areas of the park with natural darkness and no artificial light pollution, the waters of the Atlantic will reflect starlight and moonlight, making the water brighter than the land. When artificial lights make a horizon that is brighter than the water, hatchlings will crawl in the wrong direction and never reach the surf.
  • When visiting the park, you can help preserve the night sky. When staying in an oceanfront beach house, you can close blinds and turn off unnecessary outside lights. When taking a moonlit walk along the shore, use flashlights only when necessary. You can also decrease light pollution at home by installing outdoor lights that point light downward, not outward, and by using a less powerful lamp or bulb.
  • Beach fires (permits are required for beach fires) are also a source of artificial light. Make sure that you build your beach fire according to your permit to minimize your impact on turtle hatchlings.
  • The loss of the night sky does not have to happen. Protecting dark skies doesn’t mean throwing civilization back into the dark ages; it simply means that we need to make sure that artificial outdoor lights are used carefully, in ways that respect our human environment, wildlife, and the night sky that belongs to us all.

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