Conserving Sea Turtles One Nest at a Time – Monica McLenigan (NR), Hammocks Beach State Park

Morgan and I measuring a loggerhead sea turtle using calipers
Morgan and I measuring a loggerhead sea turtle using calipers.

It was an EGG-cellent summer! When I arrived at Hammocks Beach State Park in May, I did not know that I was about to begin the best summer of my life.

Hammocks Beach State Park (HBSP) is one of North Carolina State Parks and sits just south of Emerald Isle between Bogue Inlet and Bear Inlet. This park offers activities such as kayaking or paddle boarding throughout the sound, taking a tour of their visitors center, or taking the ferry over to Bear Island. With the exception of two buildings and the bathhouse, Bear Island is a four-mile long island that is completely undeveloped. This low-light area is the perfect condition for sea turtles to come and nest!

HBSP hired me as an unpaid summer sea turtle nesting intern and it turned out to be a challenging, yet very rewarding, experience. I was one of three sea turtle interns that worked under Sarah Kendrick, a park ranger, who also was in the College of Natural Resources while she was a student at NC State.

The importance of sea turtle patrol is often overlooked. Sea turtle nests that go unprotected usually fall victim to ghost crabs, coyotes, or other wildlife in the surrounding area. Caging nests prevent other wildlife from getting in, but still allow the baby sea turtles to get to the ocean. Additionally, sea turtle patrol keeps human disturbance to a minimum.

As a sea turtle nesting intern, we had many responsibilities. First and foremost, we had to ensure the safety of the sea turtles, as well as their nests. So, we patrolled the beach in the evenings from around 9:30pm to 2:30am looking for sea turtles. If we spotted one, we would wait in the truck to see if she was going to nest or if it was just a false crawl. A false crawl is when a momma sea turtle acts like she is coming onto the beach to nest, but instead turns around and goes back into the water. A majority of our turtle sightings were false crawls, which we had to document; however, if a turtle began to nest, our procedure was much different.

Not only did we have to measure her six separate ways, we also had to tag her using both PIT and metal tags, take a photo for identification, take an egg for a DNA sample, record the location of the nest, as well as mark and cage the nest. The PIT and metal tags were definitely challenging (and a little scary) at first! A metal tag has a series of numbers and letters inscribed that serves as an identification tool and must be clamped into the turtle’s front left flipper. A PIT tag is inserted closer to the turtle’s head than a metal tag, and can only be detected by a scanner. A cool fact about sea turtles is that they enter into an almost unconscious state once they begin nesting. So, most of the time our presence did not influence them at all.

A relocated sea turtle nest.
A relocated sea turtle nest.

Rarely, we had to relocate a nest if it was too close to the tide line, where it would not get enough oxygen due to extended underwater submersion. While relocating a nest, it is vital to try and keep the eggs as close to their original position as possible. We could not rotate the eggs and had to try our best to place them in the same area of the nest that they were in initially. So, an egg initially at the bottom of the nest had to go to the bottom of the new nest as well. This might sound easy, but moving up to 120 eggs can get a little tricky!

Aside from the technical aspects of our internships, we also were responsible for answering questions that visitors and locals had about our program and loggerhead sea turtles in general. It was rewarding to see how excited the public was about our program and the wildlife that exists on Bear Island.

Often, our nights were filled with a lot of waiting; however, we did have quite a few eventful experiences. The first time we saw bioluminescence was eye-opening. Sure, we had learned about it in a few of our classes, but actually seeing it is something completely different. We were brushing off a mama turtle so we could take a picture for identification purposes, and her carapace (shell) began to light up this vibrant, royal blue! From that moment on, our nights were filled with searching for bioluminescence along the beach. Towards the end of the summer, we were walking through some tidal pools when it looked like blue fireworks were forming around our feet.

One night, we doubled as emergency responders. A camper came barreling towards us in a panic because he forgot to bring snacks for his diabetic uncle who had fainted. We passed their campsite just in time and came to the rescue with some trail mix and a jug of water.

The most challenging part about this internship was time. Once a turtle began nesting, we only had so long to accomplish our entire procedure. On the other hand, we did a lot of waiting around, usually while incredibly exhausted. I knew the time commitment before I applied for the position, so this was not much of a surprise. This was an unpaid internship, which did put me at a disadvantage financially; however, I honestly would have felt guilty getting paid for this position because it was such an amazing experience.

Not only was the experience amazing, but I also had the opportunity to live on a barrier island. With beautiful sunrises/sunsets, an undeveloped beach, daily shell hunting, dune meadows, and a gorgeous evening sky, it will be hard to find a better place to live. This is a phenomenal program that is both organized and professional. Working with sea turtles was an awesome experience, but the staff at HBSP is what made my summer so amazing. I loved this internship, and I would volunteer to do it again in a heartbeat!

When I applied for this internship, I did not know that once I left I would have a new interest in continuing my career in wildlife management. Additionally, I learned a lot about myself this summer. For example, I learned that I love living in new places and making new friends, but it takes me a little while to setting in and feel comfortable. I absolutely see myself with a career dealing with coastal environments or wildlife. The work environment was incredible, the people I worked with/for were amazing, and I lived at the beach. Every day was different, which is also something that I really enjoyed. However, the most important thing that I figured out this summer is that if you love what you’re doing and whom you are working with, you won’t have to work a day in your life!