It happens every year from July through October along the coast of North Carolina. After dusk, thousands of baby loggerhead sea turtles hatch from eggs after months of developing in sand-covered nests on the beach. After these fresh turtles emerge from nests that average about 100 eggs, instinct tells them to head for the safety of the Atlantic shore, using moonlight over the ocean’s horizon as their guide.
Unfortunately, not every newly hatched turtle is lucky enough to make it to water. Manufactured sources of light from beachfront property, streetlights, car lights and campfires can turn hatchlings around in the wrong direction. This disorientation can signal doom for hatchlings, who must avoid such predators as seagulls, ghost crabs, raccoons and dogs in order to survive. Disorientation is a leading contribution to why experts estimate that only one in 1,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood. As a result, loggerhead sea turtles have been on the endangered species list since 1978.
Thankfully, for many of these shelled creatures, volunteers at the North Carolina Sea Turtle Project monitor and guide hatchlings to help ensure they make it to water. The volunteers also round up weak hatchlings and stragglers, and deliver them to North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission‘s Division of Wildlife Management staff, who care for these endangered animals until they are strong enough to be released back into the wild.
As part of its accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Newport Aquarium has participated in the North Carolina Sea Turtle Project since 2003. Each October, husbandry staffers from Newport Aquarium and other AZA accredited institutions from across the United States meet in The Tar Heel State and work with local marine biologists to release sea turtles into the ocean. Upon a successful release trip, each participating institution is given at least one young hatchling to foster typically for a year.
On Oct. 17, 2013, Newport Aquarium biologist Jen Hazeres and water quality specialist Cameo VonStrohe released Freedom, a loggerhead sea turtle, and 17 other sea turtles into the warm waters of the Gulf Stream 36 miles off the coast of North Carolina.
Following a successful release mission, Hazeres and VonStrohe did not return empty-handed. The Sea Turtle Project folks gave them a seven-week-old female loggerhead to foster and nurture at Newport Aquarium.
The young loggerhead was hatched at the beginning of August in Emerald Isle, N.C., and was no larger than the size of a 50-cent piece when she was given to Hazeres and VonStrohe. During her initial veterinarian visit at a North Carolina animal facility on Aug. 8, 2013, she was weighed at 54 grams, which is less than the weight of 11 nickels.
Before heading back to Newport, Hazeres and VonStrohe lubricated the tiny loggerhead’s shell, and gave her eye drops to keep them moist during the car ride. Hazeres and VonStrohe loaded up their truck and transported the female loggerhead in a small C3 sterile container back to the aquarium. The container was covered to help keep the loggerhead warm and calm.
“And so she wouldn’t have to hear Cameo and I sing,” Hazeres joked of the drive back from North Carolina to Newport, Ky.
Visit Newport Aquarium’s official blog – aquariumworks.org – every Tuesday to receive updates on the baby sea turtle’s progress through its journey of survival.