Excavating a Sea Turtle Nest Makes for an Unforgettable Experience


by Rachel Snodgrass, SCA Intern at Cape Lookout National Seashore

Open Spaces, the official blog of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is now featuring monthly posts by Student Conservation Association interns working to promote, protect, and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. This is the first post in the series, written by Rachel Snodgrass, who served with SCA this summer at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina.

It’s our great pride and pleasure to partner with USFWS, as well as the other great federal land management agencies, to connect young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities.

Hello Wildlife Enthusiasts! I’m so happy to get to tell you about my recent experience excavating sea turtle nests as a Student Conservation Association Intern at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina!

Wildlife biologists excavate nests to collect data after eggs in a nest have finished hatching. They dig in and document such findings as unhatched eggs, hatched shells, broken eggs and stranded live hatchlings.

One Friday I got to work with Cape Lookout biologist Brooke Wheatley, excavating a couple of nests that hadn’t had the highest success rates. Brooke sensed that I was a bit bummed to see so many unhatched eggs and little hatchlings who hadn’t made it, so that night she asked if I would like to help on another (hopefully more lively) excavation the following morning. Eager to give it another go, I accepted immediately. The next day, there I was, bright and early, excavating my third sea turtle nest. We found seven live loggerhead hatchlings still beneath the sand! They all ended up making it out to sea just fine with our watchful eyes on them.

It’s nearly impossible to describe the way it felt to see those seven little creatures wiggle their way across the beach to their new home. It was such a wild sight, almost surreal! Suffice it to say, it was without question one of the best moments of my life. Having the chance to connect with my environment on such a hands-on level has given me a whole new appreciation for nature. Working so closely with these magnificent animals helped pull me out of the small piece of the world I’m living in and into theirs.

But did you know baby sea turtles have only about a 1 in 1,000 chance of making it to sexual maturity? Only .001!

Some of the forces that result in such dismal prospects are out of our hands, such as predation once the hatchlings have made it to the ocean, but other things we can certainly change. We can create less of the garbage that ends up on beaches and in the ocean, things like plastic grocery bags that can harm hungry turtles when they mistake them for a meal and become entangled (submerged bags look a lot like jellyfish, a staple of the sea turtle’s diet). We can work to limit light pollution as well, which can be confusing to hatchlings that use the moon to guide them toward the ocean. We can limit construction on popular nesting beaches, as new buildings can confuse turtles who return to the same spot year after year, causing them to return to the water without laying their eggs. We can restrict driving on beaches as well, as vehicle traffic can damage nests or cause hapless hatchlings to get stuck in tire tracks. These are all things that federal and state wildlife management agencies are working on, and it’s been so meaningful to be a part of these efforts!

Once I’m out of college, armed with degrees in biology and environmental science, I plan to teach high school or college. My experience at Cape Lookout has taught me that studying the environment firsthand can be truly life-changing, and that’s something that I want to pass on to others! I want to end with a shout-out to Brooke Wheatley and all of the interpretation staff at Cape Lookout, plus to everyone at the SCA, for helping me get started on this path!

Click here to find this post on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Open Spaces blog.