Callie Boatright shares experiences from her internship with the North Carolina Coastal Reserve at Masonboro Island, Part 2. Part 1: Not your everyday walk on the beach

The majority of my internship at the North Carolina Coastal Reserve at Masonboro involved walking and looking for sea turtle nests on the island. I would walk once or twice a week to get videos in the hopes of finding new sea turtle nests and nests that had hatched. On my third day of walking I came across fresh sea turtle tracks from the night before for the first time. It was one of the most exciting moments!  

Callie Boatright with sea turtle tracks
Callie with fresh sea turtle tracks. Photo: Callie Boatright

Sea turtles start laying their eggs at the end of spring and beginning of summer. The hatchlings start to emerge at the end of the summer and continue through the month of October. The hatchlings grow and mature in their eggs through an incubation period of 50-70 days. The temperature of the sand influences both the length of gestation and the sex of the turtles. Researchers have found that warmer sand yields a higher ratio of female turtles.

Each time we discovered sea turtle tracks, we would determine from which direction the mother sea turtle came onto the beach and where she went back into the ocean. We would then measure the sea turtle tracks to see how big the sea turtle was and to try to get an idea if the same turtle was coming back to the same area to lay her eggs. We would locate the nest of eggs and take one egg as a sample, for DNA testing to study sea turtles. Then we laid a mesh over the nest to help protect the hatchlings from predators such as foxes or dogs. Signs are posted to let visitors know that there is a nest there and not to disturb it.

While walking, we would also check previously found nests, especially towards the end of the season when nests would start hatching. A tell-tale sign of a nest hatching is a depression in the sand. Sometimes we came across nests that had already hatched and see all the baby sea turtle tracks. We discovered one nest that had hatched the night before only to find that almost all of the baby sea turtles had gone the wrong way. Instead of going towards the ocean they went towards the sound. We frantically searched the area for any surviving sea turtles and rescued  three or four, returning them to the ocean. When touching any sea turtle or the eggs you have to wear gloves to protect you and the sea turtle.

sea turtle nest Masonboro Island
Sea turtle nest with tracks. Photo: Callie Boatright

One morning we found a nest where only one sea turtle had hatched. Realizing that the sea turtles would hatch that night, a group of intern planned to kayak out to Masonboro to watch them hatch. This was an experience itself! We started with half an hour of kayaking at low tide, thinking there would be an easy landing to get to, but we ended up trudging through knee deep marsh mud to get dry land. One girl lost her shoe in the mud! We then had a 20 minute walk through the backside of the island to get to the beach. Once we finally reached the beach we all got in the water and washed off. We finally made our way to the nest and next was the longest part… waiting for them to hatch. Luckily, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset while we waited and it was nice opportunity to get to know each other. It started getting late and we noticed lightning all around us. Very impatiently waiting, we decided that if the turtles had not started hatching by 10:30 we would leave. We left the Center for Marine Science at 6:30 pm and waited for almost four hours for the turtles to hatch. Right as we were about to leave one of the interns said, “wait did it just get darker?” We all shined lights on the nest to see a depression forming. The turtles were hatching! We used a red light to shine on the turtles to watch them because turtles do not see the color red and other lights bother them. The turtles took their sweet time coming out, but once they finally came, they came all at once. This is called a boil because they bubble out the nest. It was one of the coolest experiences that I’ve ever had.

Once the turtles started coming out, we realized they were all heading towards the sound. This is bad because the sea turtles cannot survive in the sound. We all frantically started trying to redirect the turtles back to the shore. By about midnight we had ushered about 100 baby sea turtles from their nest to the ocean. We were tired but inspired, as well. I can only imagine what would have happened if we had not been there to help them make it to the ocean. The wonderful experience made the difficult return trip through the marsh and kayak back in the dark of night less exhausting!

We think the turtles headed towards the sound, instead of the ocean, was because of the light pollution from Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach and downtown Wilmington. The ocean looked completely black and the moon was not out to shine on the water for the turtles to follow. Because sea turtles use the light to guide them to the ocean, light pollution can be a major problem for their survival.  

Sea turtles are beautiful creatures and because of this internship I have much more respect and understanding for them, and more of a passion for protecting these endangered creatures.

baby sea turtles
Two baby sea turtles on their way to the ocean. Photo: Callie Boatright

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