VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Volunteers from the Virginia Aquarium recently discovered a loggerhead sea turtle nest on the beach in the city’s north end.
Officials said the 129 eggs could hatch any night now, and it’s the first they’ve found in that area since 2019. But loggerheads are the most common species seen in this area, according to Chelsea Witherup, a stranding and research technician with the Virginia Aquarium, followed by Kemp Ridleys.
“I wouldn’t call it rare,” Witherup said. “We get around 10 to 20 nests a year. This has been the first nest that’s been on the north end, so that’s in the Virginia Aquarium’s jurisdiction to cover.
“Since 2019, however, there have been several nests down on the refuge — Back Bay and the state park of False Cape, on Dam Neck’s beach, on Sandbridge, and then all the way up to Fort Story.”
She said that while Virginia Beach gets a handful of nests each year, it’s nowhere near as many as Georgia and Florida, who are getting thousands.
“They are not endangered,” Witherup said. “The Kemps-Ridleys in our area are the ones that are the most critically endangered. Loggerheads, in our area we typically see once they’re in the sub-adult phase, so they’re usually between 100 and 200 pounds when we see them here, so seeing the hatchlings at day one compared to the 100, 200 pound loggerheads, it’s a really unique experience to be able to see them at those two different life stages.”
The aquarium operates the only organization in the state permitted to handle sea turtle hatchlings in the wild.
One of its biggest goals is to make sure the turtles get to the water safely.
“We actually have barriers around the nest and along the runway down to the water,” Witherup said, “so that assists them if they do become disoriented and cross the line of disorientation, which we have measured out. We can record that for data purposes, but then also, they’ll still have these barriers to then guide them down to the water, without our intervention.”
A team of volunteers patrol the beaches at sunrise every morning. The patroller on the morning that person spotted the loggerhead sea turtle nests saw the tracks the mother made the night before, Witherup said.
“They are trained to follow those tracks and find the nest,” Witherup said. “Once they find it, they notify our team. We go out and we actually will dig down into the nest to confirm that there are actually eggs down there. And so we did this, and this mother had laid the eggs just above the high tide line, so it could have been inundated with washover or heavy storms during its incubation period.
“We decided, with our permits, we’re actually able to move the nest up the beach to the dunes, so it wouldn’t have to deal with any tidal fluctuations or storms or anything like that.”
How do the hatchlings know to come out at night?
“They’re triggered by the cooler temperature in the evening, so when the temperature drops in the evening, that cooler temperature will trigger them to start moving around, start breaking out of their shells,” Witherup said. “And they can either make it all the way out then, or they can start breaking out and then stop for 24 hours, and then start crawling some more … so it can take a couple (of) days for all of them to actually out.”
It’s the cool temperature that triggers them to move, and she said that’s why it’s interesting, “because it can happen all in five minutes to three days.”
Witherup said light can disorient the hatchlings, so they’ll do lighting surveys whenever there’s a nest, and they have barriers around the nest and along the runway down to the water to help them if they do become disoriented and cross the line of disorientation, which it has measured out.
“The goal is no intervention at all,” Witherup said.
She said they want the sea turtles to do whatever natural things they do. She noted that any of the females from the nest, if they do reach maturity, they’ll usually come back to that same beach they were originally laid on.
“So that whole process … is very, very important,” she said. “Getting flipped over and struggling to get back over — that’s so important to … build their strength. They’re about to swim thousands of miles, so they need to go through that process.
If anyone comes across a nesting turtle or hatchlings in the sand, they should call the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Team at 757-385-7575.