Sea Turtles on the Coast

Sea Turtles on the Coast

A sea turtle hatchling

Hundreds of sea turtles come ashore in North Carolina each summer on a journey mapped before they were born. These loggerheads, leatherbacks, ridleys and green sea turtles lay eggs by the hundred, then return to the sea. Thousands of hatchlings emerge and follow their instincts across the ocean miles – and possibly back to the same beach to lay eggs of their own.

The odds are against them. Animal and human raiders target the eggs in the sand-covered nests. On the trek to water’s edge, hatchlings are vulnerable to predators and the disorienting effects of manmade light. Sharks and whales are threats in the ocean. Even larger perils lie close to shore, where boat propellers, hooks and nets can be lethal, discarded balloons and plastic bags can cause fatal blockages, and polluted water can poison them. Estimates on the odds of survival to maturity range from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000.

A number of places on the North Carolina coast open the window on sea turtles. Here are highlights of seasonal and year-round opportunities.

Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center

The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center moved into a roomy new hospital in June 2014. The new 13,600-square-foot hospital, among the largest on the East Coast, is better equipped for diagnosing, treating and rehabbing turtles. The hospital welcomes visitors who want to engage in the sea turtles' remarkable life journey and efforts to improve the odds of survival for species that date back millions of years.

North Carolina Aquariums

Sea turtles are highly visible at all three North Carolina Aquariums, which are also involved in rescue, rehabilitation and release. Those activities take on a new dimension at the Roanoke Island aquarium with the new Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center, which is expected to open in fall 2013. There, visitors can observe caregiving for the recovering reptiles as they approach “Operation Sea Turtle Rescue,” an interactive exhibit that explores the work of the aquarium and the volunteer Network for Endangered Sea Turtles.

The Pine Knoll Shores aquarium acquired one of its most popular inhabitants through rescue. Volunteer sea turtle monitors found Nimbus, a rare white loggerhead, as a hatchling that didn’t make it to the ocean with its nest mates in 2010. Nimbus, who has a cleft palate, is now a permanent resident who can be seen near the “Sea Turtle Rescue” exhibit. Aquarium programs include Night Trek, a summer beach walk with the possibility of spotting turtles as they nest; Turtle Tuesdays; and an August celebration of Nimbus’ birthday.

The aquarium at Fort Fisher features a “Let’s Talk Turtle” exhibit, and regular behind-the-scenes tours cover sea turtle activity at the popular aquarium. Also, rangers at the adjacent Fort Fisher State Recreational Area offer “Turtle Talks.”

Bald Head Island

Residents of this nature-loving barrier island have watched over sea turtles since 1980. Today, through the Bald Head Island Conservancy, visitors have a range of opportunities to learn about turtle activity on one of the highest density nesting beaches within the loggerhead’s northern range. Among the possibilities are Sea Turtle Patrol Ride-Alongs, nighttime Turtle Walks (conservancy membership required) and screenings of Turtle: The Incredible Journey!

Other opportunities

Every day, trained volunteers walk the beaches on North Carolina’s 320-mile coastline with an eye to turtle activity. These citizen scientists takes steps to protect nests from predators, stand by to assist when the hatchlings emerge en masse and head to the sea, and scour the strand for turtles in distress. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission oversees their work through community programs with a combined membership of 1,200 to 1,500 volunteers.

Visitors can use encounters with turtle watchers as learning opportunities. Public “turtle talk” events are also offered by local organizations, including:

Programs are also offered by:

Beachgoers can help the cause with measures as simple as picking up trash and keeping light to a minimum. Learn more about protecting turtles at

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