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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

A 'record-breaking' number of loggerhead sea turtle nests on Masonboro Island

Loggerheads heading to the sea on September 27, 2022
Byron Toothman
Loggerheads heading to the sea on September 27, 2022

A loggerhead sea turtle nest recently hatched on Masonboro Island. WHQR was there to see it.

“Oh yea, all the babies are in there right now, all of them. All of them. Look in there,” Elizabeth Pinnix said.

She’s the southern sites manager for the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve.

“When I graduated from college at UNCW (University of North Carolina Wilmington), one of my professors said, ‘She'll go on to be the turtle whisperer.’ And here we are,” Pinnix said.

Elizabeth Pinnix with loggerhead sea turtles on September 27, 2022
Byron Toothman
Elizabeth Pinnix with loggerhead sea turtles on September 27, 2022

Pinnix said the mother sea turtle laid the nest on July 25; it takes about 60 days to hatch.

She pulled out about a hundred baby sea turtles, each about a few inches long, still buried in the nest. They most likely hatched the evening prior.

The turtle eggs are protected by a mesh covering to keep out predators. And this nest had its share of ‘overwash,’ which impacted the sand on top, making it difficult for them to escape naturally.

“Right underneath, it looks like where their belly button would be, it's actually where they're attached to the embryo in the egg. What this does is they absorb that into their bodies, and that's the energy they use to get offshore. So the first few days of their life, all they're doing is swimming, they just swim and swim and swim so they can get offshore to protection, and then they'll begin eating,” she said.

Pinnix said there’s a one in 1,000 chance these babies will make it to adulthood. The typical age for reproduction is about 30 years old.

She also sends one egg off to researchers for DNA analysis. When results come back, they'll be able to tell who the mother is of the nest.

This Atlantic coast project has been going on for about 11 years. The researchers do this analysis for North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida.

“So we can see, okay, this turtle laid a nest on Masonboro, and then she went down to Myrtle Beach and laid a nest,” Pinnix said.

And as to whether sea turtles return to the same spot for nesting, Pinnix said, it depends, “some are very loyal and will come back to the same beach every other year, but it’s not always the same beach, it’s more like the same geographic location.”

'A special moment'

As the baby turtles were making their way to the water, one flipper at a time, a group of six students watched them on the isolated Masonboro Island beach.

Baby loggerhead sea turtle, September 2022
Byron Toothman
Baby loggerhead sea turtle, September 2022

Kay Lynn Plummer Hernandez runs Wilmington Outdoor Adventures — and brought the kids out to the beach.

“Oh my gosh, I'm so excited. For these kids to see this right now is huge. A lot of these kids have never even seen the ocean, so this is amazing,” she said.

One of them was Brendan, a student who had high hopes for the baby turtles, “I can say like, ‘Hey, ma, I'm seeing sea turtles,’ because my mother loves sea turtles and stuff. So I'm glad I could see it like them go to the ocean and live their lives — hope they get like big and strong and healthy.”

Another adult volunteer with Brendan was Maia Dery.

“Yeah, that was a really huge gift. And I'm I am grateful to the universe for providing it, [...] but we were here just at the right time to see this new life start. And I think that was magical for all of us,” Dery said.

The obstacles the turtles face

Pinnix said seeing the baby sea turtles hatch is one of the best parts of her job, but they face enormous challenges in their path to survival.

“So lighting is a big issue as well as coastal developments and they're losing habitat. Sea level rise, honestly, we have less habitat for them to nest in at times. [There are] certain parts on our beach where she will come up to nest, and she ‘false crawls’, which means she came up she didn't like the conditions and so she turned around and left,” she said.

The mother sea turtle may leave, Pinnix said, because she was interrupted by people or predators.

“But she also could not like the sediment composition. So beach nourishment, if it's not compatible with what she wants, or if there are just no dunes, she'll get lost. If she doesn't orient with where she wants to be, and so she'll go back to the ocean. She'll usually try again, but those are a lot of things that we encounter,” Pinnix said.

Growing populations of loggerheads

Loggerheads are federally protected species — and that designation has helped grow their populations.

“We've had our biggest nesting years on Masonboro in the past three years that we've ever had on record. [...] So we had 72 sea turtle nests total. This year 64 of those were loggerhead sea turtles, which is the most common nester in North Carolina, and then eight of those were green sea turtle nests,” Pinnix said.

According to Pinnix, the sex of the hatchling is determined by the temperature at which they’re incubating, so colder temperatures will produce males, and warmer incubation will produce females.

In the face of climate change, Pinnix said North Carolina and the east coast are still producing a healthy stock of males.

“So some turtles are moving up; they’ve had nests in Virginia. They’re adapting – and that’s all we can ask of them. Sea turtles are extremely resilient,” Pinnix said.

Pinnix said she and the reserve researchers will continue working to ensure the viability of these nests in the future.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR