Excavations of Sea Turtle Nests Draw a Crowd at Cape Hatteras National Seashore

(Top photo) Turtle nest excavations at Cape Hatteras are drawing crowds of visitors. (Bottom photo) Excavation occurs 72 hours or more after eggs have hatched, to determine hatch success rate and gather other information. NPS photos.

Efforts to protect sea turtle nests at Cape Hatteras National Seashore have been controversial in some quarters, but the work is clearly paying off. Once eggs have hatched, NPS staff members excavate the nest to gather information and check for any remaining eggs or hatchlings. The process is open to the public, and it's proved to be popular with visitors.

The seashore reports it has tallied a record 151 nests thus far during the 2010 season, but once the eggs have hatched, there's still work to be done.

At least 72 hours after a sea turtle nest has hatched naturally, the nest cavity is examined, or "excavated," by park staff members to count eggshells and determine the hatch and emergence rates for the nest.

A nest excavation begins with scientists carefully removing sand from the nest cavity to examine eggshell fragments and any remaining unhatched eggs. Eggshells and eggs are counted and unhatched eggs are checked for stage of development and fertility. Sometimes the staff will find live hatchling(s) that have not made it out of the nest cavity and will release the hatchling(s) into the ocean at least one hour after dusk.

From this examination, the hatch success for the nest can be determined and the information is added to the turtle nesting databases for the seashore and the State of North Carolina. In addition to the information gained, excavations provide park staff a chance to learn the result of their many hours of effort to monitor and protect these nest sites, and also provides an opportunity for park visitors to observe the process and share the experience.

If you'd like to observe future nest excavations, you can check park bulletin boards or contact the Ocracoke Visitor Center (252-928-4531) or Buxton Visitor Center (252-995-4474) for information about the date for the next planned nest excavation. A big unknown at this point is the potential impact of Hurricane Earl, so inquire ahead to see if and when additional activities are planned before making a trip to the park.