Sea Turtle Rescue: Making a Way to the Ocean

By Heather Gordy | Friday night late April of 2013, a female sea turtle washed ashore along the coast of Wrightsville Beach, becoming trapped once the tide receded. Hopeless and weak, she remained there through the night waiting for rescue or whatever came next. Sand blew in the wind slowly building over her face and flippers. Nancy Fahey, permit holder and volunteer coordinator for the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Program, was a part of the team who responded to her rescue. “Honestly,” Nancy said, “I think she had given up hope of survival.”

Sea Turtle Rescue & Conservation: Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release, and Protect

April on the beachA gentleman who had been running on the beach that morning spotted the sea turtle. Once he realized she was still alive, he ran back for his phone and called for help. It was nine o’clock Saturday morning before anyone called to report the stranded sea turtle. Nancy and her team rushed to the beach.

“Here was this sub-adult loggerhead sea turtle in such desperate situation,” Nancy said, “and even as we pulled up I said, ‘I don’t know if this turtle is still alive.’ because at first glance you wouldn’t have thought she was.” Nancy and her team began to uncover and dig the sea turtle out of the sand. They loaded her into their vehicle, and rushed her over to The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center located in Surf City. There she could receive proper care in hopes of having a successful recovery.

“As bad a shape as that turtle was in, you could tell she was watching everything that we did,” Nancy said. “She was completely engaged, and I think she knew we were trying to help her. And I’m telling you something, that turtle made nothing less than a miraculous recovery.”

The sea turtle was named April when she was brought to the rehabilitation center. April’s strength touched Nancy’s heart along with many others. “I don’t think there was anyone that ever passed through those doors that wasn’t touched by her story of survival,” said Nancy. April was able to make a full recovery and was released successfully June of 2014.

April the sea turtleThis is just one sea turtle of many who has inspired and touched volunteers, local residents, and tourists who take the opportunity to visit the recovering sea turtles. This is one sea turtle of many who has made a successful recovery due to the help of the North Carolina Sea Turtle Projects, The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, and the dedicated staff and volunteers who are involved in these organizations. “They’re incredibly brilliant animals,” said Nancy, “and they are survivors if they’re given the chance.”

This isn’t all that the North Carolina Sea Turtle Projects are involved with. Each summer, sea turtles make their way onto the coast of North Carolina in search for a nesting site. With continual development around coastal areas, sea turtle hatchlings survival rate has decreased. Loggerhead sea turtles, green sea turtles, and leatherback sea turtles are all recognized as endangered species, and all three species nest along the coast of North Carolina, with the majority being loggerhead sea turtle nests.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission works to help recruit and train volunteers in participating in the North Carolina Sea Turtle Projects such as the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project (WBSTP). The WBSTP aims to protect sea turtle nests and provide guidance for sea turtle hatchlings.

Nancy Fahey first volunteered for the WBSTP the summer of 1995. Growing up in West Virginia she had never seen a sea turtle in person. When she got to participate in witnessing the hatchlings nest that year she said, “I was completely hooked.”

Nancy works alongside a team of dedicated volunteers to ensure that the WBSTP monitoring system is successful. Nancy is responsible for organizing groups of volunteers to conduct monitoring work each day during nesting season, starting the first of May and continuing through the end of August.

Six volunteers patrol the beach every morning. Each covers about three quarters of a mile conducting a thorough walk through and looking for any possible nesting turtle tracks. Nests are recorded when located, and a perimeter is set up around the nesting site. Once eggs are laid, the incubation process takes approximately fifty days. Nancy organizes groups to watch over the nests during this fifty day period, and then groups are assembled to watch over the nests for when they begin to hatch.

Nest 5 turtle eggsDuring one nesting, a female sea turtle may lay up to 120 eggs. Once the eggs are laid, the sea turtles return to the ocean, never to see their eggs hatch. Hatchlings must survive and make it to the ocean on their own.

“Our biggest challenge at Wrightsville Beach,” Nancy said, “is the artificial lighting.” If the sea turtles were to nest on a natural beach, the hatchlings would use the natural light over the horizon, such as the light from the moon, to navigate their way to the ocean. “Artificial lighting, which has been established on their nesting grounds by mankind,” Nancy said, “is overwhelming and definitely conflicts with the natural light the hatchlings have evolved to use to find their way.”

Prior to the WBSTP, there were cases of hatchlings ending up in places other than the ocean. “They would wind up in swimming pools and in the road,” Nancy said. “Police would find dozens of sea turtle hatchlings trying to crawl around in the road, and when you have something like that happen our chances of any survivors for a nest is none—they don’t make it out to the ocean.”

The WBSTP officially went underway in 1994. Since then Wrightsville Beach has been strongly working towards sea turtle conservation by responding to reports of stranded sea turtles and helping protect sea turtle nests and hatchlings. “We’ve permanently altered their nesting habitat,” Nancy said, “and I think without some action on our part their ability to reproduce would be exceedingly diminished.”

Nest 5 tracks“We hope to at least level the playing fields on behalf of the turtles by at least getting them to the ocean…” Nancy said. “We are not there to interfere. We are only there to try to mitigate the obstacles that we’ve created for them, and maybe it’s working. I like to think that it is.”

I like to think that it’s helping too. As of July first of 2016, eleven sea turtle nests had been recorded for this season already. The largest nest count was recorded in 1999 with a record of sixteen nests that season. We haven’t surpassed a count of even ten nests for the past ten years. Nancy predicts that by the end of nesting season in August, we will surpass the record count of sixteen nests, which would truly be amazing.

This past June, Nancy responded to two sea turtle rescue calls. Both were spotted in neutral waters lethargic and resurfacing over the same area. Nancy explained that these are migratory animals, so when you see them hanging around one area for a long time, they could have a problem. “You can tell that they’re not behaving normally,” Nancy said, “because they’re either floating or floundering around or they’re not on the move. Thankfully, Nancy and her team were able to get both turtles transported to the rehabilitation center. One being named Magnolia and the other Stormy, both are currently in recovery and making progress.

This has been a busy season for the WBSTP and the rehabilitation center. Volunteers put forth their own time and hard-working effort all summer to assist in identifying any signs of nesting activity or stranded turtles on the beach. “They sit faithfully with our nests when they are expected to hatch in order to make sure the hatchlings safely reach the Atlantic [Ocean],” Nancy said. “I can’t say enough how incredibly devoted the volunteers are to the sea turtles and our mission of conservation.”

Nancy too has been a devoted volunteer and supporter over the past years for the WBSTP and the sea turtle rehabilitation center. She works to help out with these animals in any way that she can. Nancy answers the rescue calls at any hour of the night. Her passion and care for the sea turtles is contagious and also inspiring. “I love it,” she said. “I’ve met the most incredibly awesome people in doing this… it’s certainly brought a lot back to me in many ways, so overall I can’t imagine not being a part of this.”

Wildlife conservation is important. It’s necessary to conserve in order for future generations to experience all that we have. In order to protect our ecosystems, we must work together and make the best effort to do what we can to protect our planet.

If interested in finding out more information about sea turtles, check out the following opportunities around the coastal area.

Tuesday Turtle Talks by WBSTP

Turtle Talks are held every Tuesday through the end of August at 7 p.m. at the North Carolina Coastal Federation located at 309 W. Salisbury Street, Wrightsville Beach, NC. Turtle Talks are free to attend and family oriented. Come learn about the history of sea turtles and understand more about these beautiful sea creatures.

Tours at The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center

Tours are open 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. everyday except Sunday and Wednesday. Come meet the recovering sea turtles and learn their stories of suffering and rescue, and of hope and survival. The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center is located at 302 Tortuga Lane, Surf City, NC.

Odyssey of the Sea Turtle Program at the Museum of Coastal Carolina

This event will be held every Monday at 3:30 p.m. throughout the summer at the Museum of Coastal Carolina located at 21 East Second Street, Ocean Isle Beach, NC. The Museum of Coastal Carolina and the Ocean Isle Beach Turtle Protection Organization join together to discuss the life cycle of sea turtles, specifically focusing on loggerhead sea turtles. Come learn more about what you can do to help protect sea turtles.

sea turtle rescue

Ways You Can Help:

● Fill in holes before you leave the beach.
● Make sure to remove all tents, beach chairs, and trash from the beach. Turtles can become entangled or harmed if objects are left on the beach.
● If you have an oceanfront property, please turn off all beach-facing lights after dark to help avoid hatchlings becoming misguided by artificial lighting.
● Avoid unnecessary lighting on the beach after dark.
● If you see a turtle come ashore to nest at night, please respectfully keep your distance. Do not approach the turtle, make loud noises, or take photographs. Sea turtles can be discouraged from nesting.
● If you spot a sick or injured sea turtle, or something that may be harmful to a nest, please call the statewide sea turtle emergency hotline number at 252-241-7367. This is the statewide hotline number, so they can relay the report to the appropriate North Carolina Sea Turtle Project for your area.
● Spread the knowledge and talk about it!

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