Sea Turtles in North Carolina
General Description

Sea turtles are large marine reptiles found in subtropical, tropical, and temperate oceans as well as subarctic seas. As fully mature animals, they can weigh anywhere from 75 to 2,000 lbs. Sea turtles spend the majority of their time traveling in the ocean. In addition, coastal waters offer prime foraging opportunities and access to suitable nesting habitat. The strong bond to the marine environment makes sea turtles difficult to observe and study. Basic life history questions such as how long they live and the age of sexual maturity still remain unanswered despite continual advances in sea turtle research.

Sea Turtles in North Carolina

North Carolina’s warm, shallow inshore and nearshore waters host a large number of sea turtles year-round. The state’s vast system of sounds and estuaries provide important developmental habitat for immature sea turtles because of extensive beds of submergent vegetation and a rich diversity of bottom-dwelling fauna that afford cover and forage. Additionally, North Carolina’s ocean facing beaches are annual nesting sites for adult females.

Five of the seven species of sea turtles existing in the world today occur in North Carolina’s coastal waters and all are on the endangered species list. They are loggerheads, green turtles, Kemp’s ridley’s, leatherbacks, and an infrequent hawksbill. The loggerhead, which nests on our beaches from May through August, is the most commonly seen turtle. North Carolina is the northern limit of the loggerhead’s nesting range in the U.S. and receives an average of 600 nests annually.

Loggerhead Nesting Behavior

Approximately every two to three years, a female loggerhead returns to her nesting beach to lay eggs. She emerges from the ocean at night and crawls across the beach to a suitable nest site near or at the base of a primary dune. Using her rear flippers, she digs an 18-24 inch deep nest cavity shaped like an upside down light bulb and deposits an average of 120 golf-ball size eggs. When she is finished laying, the female carefully covers the nest with sand and slowly returns to the water leaving the eggs to face a number of natural and human-induced dangers without further protection. The female will lay a clutch of eggs every two weeks during a single nesting season.

Following an incubation period of approximately 63 days, hatchlings emerge from the nest cavity under the cover of darkness. They scamper across the beach towards the ocean. Upon entering the water, the hatchlings swim nonstop until they reach a major oceanic current such as the Gulf Stream located off the North Carolina coast. Once entrained in oceanic currents, they drift passively amid large rafts of floating vegetation for as long as ten years. Loggerheads eventually leave this pelagic existence and return to warm shallow coastal waters where they continue to develop into adult turtles.

Threats Facing Sea Turtles

Sea turtles face many natural hazards. It is estimated that only 1 out of every 5,000 eggs develops into an adult animal. Sea turtle nests are vulnerable to predators such as raccoons, foxes, and ghost crabs. Additional threats to nests include high winds and severe storms that cause extensive beach erosion.

Many human activities have placed additional stress on sea turtle populations worldwide. Sea turtles and eggs have long been harvested for human consumption and their shells used to craft tortoise-shell jewelry and other types of ornamentation. While these practices continue today in some parts of the world, strong international regulations have greatly reduced such direct exploitation of sea turtles. However, many indirect threats to sea turtle survival still exist including entanglement in fishing gear, ingestion of marine debris, collisions with boats, and increasing beachfront development that reduces suitable nesting habitat.

North Carolina Sea Turtle Protection Program

Because North Carolina provides sea turtles with important developmental and nesting habitat, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) established the Sea Turtle Protection Program through a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act. The Sea Turtle Protection Program, administered by the NCWRC’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program, is by far the largest and most well-publicized endangered species program in the state.

The program’s objectives are twofold. The first is to monitor, manage, and protect sea turtle nests. There are over 20 sea turtle nest monitoring projects that vary in intensity from counting turtle crawls to full scale nest management. The second objective is to collect sea turtle mortality data. Every year, hundreds of dead sea turtles wash ashore or strand on North Carolina’s ocean-facing and inshore shorelines. Strandings represent the only index of sea turtle mortality available to biologists, therefore it is important that they are reported.

The Sea Turtle Protection Program relies heavily on numerous state, federal, and private agencies as well as hundreds of volunteers that gather data, educate people about sea turtles, and generate public support for the program. All actions taken to further the recovery of sea turtles are in strict compliance with the Endangered Species Act and may only be carried out by those agencies and volunteers that have been issued an Endangered Species Permit.

How You Can Help

If you are fortunate enough to encounter a nesting female or a nest that is hatching do not crowd or disturb the turtles, do not shine lights or snap flash photos, and turn off all lights in the immediate area including inside lights. Sit quietly away from the turtles. Your eyes will quickly adjust to the darkness and allow you to enjoy the experience without harassing the animals.

Please report all sea turtle strandings by calling (the nearest aquarium):

Roanoke Island Aquarium:

(252) 473-3494,

Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium:

(252) 247-4004,

Fort Fisher Aquarium:

(910) 458-8259,

Local Police Dept., or

NC Division of Marine Fisheries’ hotline:

1-800-682-2632.

Because sea turtles are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it is unlawful to harass, harm, capture, or collect sea turtle eggs and live or dead hatchlings, juveniles, and adults. Violators can be prosecuted under civil and criminal laws and assessed heavy penalties. 

Written by Ruth Boettcher, Sea Turtle Project Coordinator, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, 1998