Sea turtles have arrived at Oak Island and Greg and Suzan Bell, along with 170 volunteers, are ready.
The Bells, who are the new leaders of the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, have almost 20 years of experience as volunteers and are passionate about protecting and encouraging sea turtles, all of which are either federally endangered or threatened.
Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program is a nonprofit group totally separate from the town, although the town allows volunteers to use its facilities, such as the garage that houses the program’s patrol vehicle. Town staff also responds when volunteers find potentially hazardous items on the beach, such as tires and pilings, and they will bury deceased animals too large for a person with a shovel.
The Bells and other volunteers ride the length of the ocean beach every morning from the west side of Oak Island Pier to the west end of the island (The Point), looking for tracks and disturbances in the sand that indicate the presence of turtles and their nests. When they find a possible nest, they carefully dig to confirm there are eggs and remove a single one, which is later DNA-tested to confirm the identity of the mother. Then, they post signs noting the location and monitor the site until hatching time, which is generally 50-60 days.
Sometimes, female turtles come ashore without laying a nest: they may have been disturbed or maybe the time just wasn’t quite right. Volunteers also document these events, called false crawls.
Closer to hatching time, the volunteers place lawn edging from the nest toward the water’s edge to help the hatchlings find their way. Often, they groom the sand to make a sort of runway for the babies when they emerge, usually at night.
Suzan’s enthusiasm for sea turtles came in part when she got to SCUBA dive with them in Hawaii. She and Greg rented a house at Oak Island in the summers for years before buying a place in 2001.
“I’ve always loved sea turtles,” said Suzan, who is a retired educator. Greg worked in utilities for three decades. Before retiring, the couple lived in Elon.
“What we like so much about Oak Island is that it’s family oriented and has a hometown feel,” Suzan said.
Suzan said she and other volunteers would continue following COVID-19 distancing and masking requirements while tending the nests. It’s possible those guidelines will be more relaxed this summer, as hatchlings emerge.
It’s not yet clear whether volunteers will be able to offer in-person weekly lectures about sea turtles that had been held at the Recreation Center. Those who are interested in learning more and taking children for a field trip are welcome to visit the Ocean Education Center, located across East Oak Island Drive from Town Hall, open Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
As of press time, there were 173 nests in the state. Oak Island has noted 12 nests while Caswell Beach has 17. Bald Head Island has recorded 11 nests. The state’s first nest this season was a Holden Beach.
To learn more, adopt a nest or to donate, visit the group’s Facebook page or okiseaturtle.org online. Also, residents and visitors may purchase hats, shirts, drink holders and jewelry to support the nonprofit group at the Senior Center off East Oak Island Drive, across from Food Lion.