Volunteering as a sea turtle nest parent

Kathryn and I have now completed our first season of sea turtle nest parenting. If you followed along on instagram, you saw some of the highlights but there’s a lot more to it than what I could post in that square little world. I already shared about how the sea turtle protection program works, but this post is about the experience of actually working as a volunteer.

The federal sea turtle protection program sets the guidelines, and (for us) the North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Services sets more of the specifics. However, the implementation varies from program to program based on things like how many turtles frequent the area, how many volunteers they have, and plain ol’ preference. If you live or visit in other areas, they may do things quite differently.

volunteering as a sea turtle nest parent

Nesting begins in May, and the morning patrol looks for nests bright and early every day. When they find one, they mark it and record its location. A running list at the town recreation center has all pertinent info. Nest parents sign up for nests based on location or expected hatch dates, then trainees are assigned to nest parents. Trainees are expected to work at least one nest each season for at least three years. On our third year, we cross-train with a different nest parent in order to gain more knowledge and a new perspective.

For the first 49 days after a nest is laid, there’s nothing much to do except maybe go scope it out and say hi to the turtles inside. On day 50, after nest parents set up a runway to help the hatchlings reach the water, we begin nighttime sitting. And yes, we re-dig the runway every night until they hatch.

setting up sea turtle nest runway

Nest sitting is simultaneously exciting and boring. Exciting because BABY TURTLES! Boring because there’s not much to do in the dark on the beach when it’s not turtle time — and that can go on every night for weeks before there’s any action.

My experience as a nest parent trainee:

This year, my first as a trainee, I “sat” four nests and helped with the excavation/inventory of several others.

What I loved about the experience:

  • evenings on the beach
  • new friends
  • star gazing
  • helping educate visitors

What I did not love:

  • rare nights with no breeze when bugs ate us alive
  • crowd control when nests hatch
  • losing sleep (late nights)
  • SO much sand in my car!

long runway for sea turtle nest

At my first nest early in the season we sat forever (actually: 17 days) with no baby turtles. This was during the Perseid meteor shower so seeing shooting stars while sitting out late at night was awesome! Most nights we sat until 11PM or later, and that gets later as we get closer to expected hatch dates. As timing would have it, we missed the main hatch but I got to see a few babies at the excavation, which happens three days after a hatch. At excavation, the nest parent digs into the nest to count and inventory all eggs and release any remaining babies.

baby sea turtle at nest excavation

At my next nest, things moved quickly. We only sat two nights before we had two turtles hatch. Then two more the next night until rain and lightning sent us packing. Visitors told us the next evening that a few more had hatched much later that evening. At excavation we had 97 baby turtles! That’s highly unusual but in this case one little turtle was wrapped up in the roots of sea oats. He must’ve been blocking the way for the rest, so once he was untangled, ALL THE BABIES were freed.

Since we do excavations before sunset, I had enough daylight to get a video!
{Click here if it isn’t working below.}

A video posted by Jamie (@jamieworley) on

When a nest hatches (or if there are live babies at an excavation), crowd control is one of the volunteers’ biggest jobs. It’s crazy: even if there’s not a soul on the beach, as soon as a baby turtle emerges, people just APPEAR out of thin air. It’s turtle paparazzi. Sometimes people get a little overzealous and might break rules that could endanger or confuse the hatchlings. With the turtles’ odds already being so low (1 in 1000 or fewer live to adulthood), we need to prevent that. Honestly, it’s my least favorite part of nest parenting because not everyone listens and I’m allergic to confrontation.

At my third nest, we again sat for a whole bunch of nights in a row. Finally, after the hatch date had come and gone, the nest was excavated. This time was sad and disappointing because most of the eggs were not viable (never formed a baby, for whatever reason) and there were a few dead babies. We only had two we could release, plus one sickly one that died overnight at the turtle center.

Volunteers are only required to work one nest each season but I did as much as I could because sea turtles!

I was able to cross-train with two different nest parents, which was great. The main team Kathryn and I worked with is made up almost entirely of homeschool families, so that was fun. They had a bunch of nests but once school started we simply could not continue to stay out late. We’d met our season requirements, and they had other trainees to help, so that worked out fine. We were still able help at excavations, which meant more baby turtles!

baby loggerhead sea turtle hatchling

Many people may not be able to commit to serve as a nest parent but really love the turtles, or they’re on vacation and want to have the experience of seeing a hatch. We welcome them to bring beach chairs and come sit with us; plus, if they’re already there, it’s easier to casually make sure they know what to do or not to do when we do have a hatch. Some nests in easily accessible locations can attract dozens and dozens of people who will sit out every night as late as nest parents do. Even more folks make a habit of walking on the beach in the evening to come by and check on the progress of nests, and some vacationers happen upon us not even knowing there are sea turtle nests on the beach they’re visiting. I love talking to these people, and have become the Cliff Clavin of little-known sea turtle facts.

another night sea turtle nest sitting

Although I’d seen a couple of babies emerge in what we call a trickle-hatch, and I’d seen all those babies at that unusual excavation, I had worked all summer without seeing a nest boil — and then finally I did! It is wild, and absolutely does look like a pot boiling over, except it’s all baby turtles clambering out and over each other and scrambling all at once to get to the water! That was awesome enough to make it all worthwhile, and I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.

celebrating final sea turtle nest of the season

>> Got questions? I’ll try to answer them in the comments.