If you’ve ever seen loggerhead sea turtles, you know just how amazing they are. Endearingly shy and gentle, these graceful aquatic creatures have beautiful heart-shaped shells covered with gorgeous markings. No wonder they’re among the most recognized – and best loved – turtles on earth.
Types of Turtles
Five different types of sea turtle come ashore to lay eggs on Outer Banks beaches: The rare Hawksbill, Kemp’s Ridley, loggerhead, green, and the largest species, leatherback turtles. Leatherback turtles are truly a sight to behold. As the largest of all turtles and the largest reptile besides crocodiles and alligators, leatherbacks can grow up to five feet long and have flippers that can reach up to nine feet long.
In late spring, female sea turtles migrate hundreds of miles from their foraging grounds to their nesting beaches. Sea turtles primarily make their nests and lay their eggs at night. Nests contain about 100 eggs (called a “clutch”), and take about 60 days until they’re ready to hatch. Interestingly, the temperature of the sand determines the sex of most of the hatchlings; warmer sand produces more females while cooler sand produces more males. The cooler sand of the Outer Banks tends to produce mostly male turtles while the warmer sands in Florida produce mainly female.
After the mother lays her eggs, she slowly makes her way back to the sea and swims off into the sunrise. Nests are left unprotected, which means they are particularly vulnerable to predators (including dogs), weather, and human activity. When they hatch, baby sea turtles use light as a visual cue for moving toward the sea. Once they hit the waves, they’ll swim for the next two to three days toward the Gulf Stream. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream are abundant in seaweed, which provides a safe place for growing sea turtles to mature for the first 10 years of life. However, the trip out of the nest to the Gulf Stream is perilous — estimates are that only one in thousands of hatchlings will survive to adulthood.
Where They Nest
Sea turtles nest in the dunes all along the Outer Banks. Cape Hatteras is particularly active, but nests can be found from Corolla to Oregon Inlet. To protect nests, volunteers comb the beaches at dawn every morning and mark nests with stakes and tape. Watch for nests along the dunes and report an unmarked nest to the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) hotline at (252) 441-8622.
Turtle Dos and Don’ts
Turtle eggs and hatchlings are incredibly fragile, and the odds are stacked against them. If you’re visiting the Outer Banks, it’s important that you watch out for our favorite little visitors by following these rules:
First Time in the Outer Banks? Here Are the Top 10 Things You Must Do
If you are planning your first trip to the Outer Banks, you undoubtedly plan to spend some time on the beach soaking up the sun and enjoying the waves. But the Outer Banks has many other attractions and points of interest you will not want to miss, including fascinating historical sites, diverse wildlife, and delicious local cuisine. As you plan your trip, be sure to make room on your itinerary for these top 10 most popular attractions that hard-core OBXers recommend.=&0=&=&1=&
Marine Wildlife Encounters On The Outer Banks
The Outer Banks of North Carolina are home to a staggering number of wildlife species, from ducks, pelicans and cranes to the famous wild horses of Corolla. Just as numerous as the shore-dwelling creatures and waterfowl are the numerous marine wildlife species that you may encounter during your stay. As you prepare to hit the beach, keep your eyes open for some of these animals that may be sharing the water with you.
=&0=&Friendly, frolicking dolphins will easily win your heart with their antics. If you look closely, you may see a group of them in the waters near the beach. Watch for their curved fins and distinctive tails as they surface. For a better chance of spotting dolphins, a dolphin cruise will take you to places where dolphin groups have been spotted recently. Be sure to bring your camera and some binoculars, although sometimes the dolphins enjoy following in the wake of the boat, giving you the opportunity to get a close-up look.
These gentle giants can live 80 years or more and spend their entire lives in the ocean. Females return to shore only for nesting, when they dig a hole in the beach to bury their eggs. The babies hatch 6 to 10 weeks later and immediately make a beeline for the water. As you walk along the beaches of the Outer Banks, you may come across some of these nests, which look like mounds of sand. Wildlife preservationists often mark these nests with small flags. If you are lucky enough to see the hatchlings emerging from their nest, be sure to leave them alone — do not try to help them dig out or find their way to the ocean. Sea turtles are protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act and it is against the law to touch them or disturb their nests. However, you can enjoy observing them from a distance as they make their way back to their ocean home. Don’t forget to snap a few pictures for your memory book!
While the Outer Banks do not have the coral reefs and accompanying fish that other beaches are known for, it has an underwater beauty all its own. The waters of the North Carolina coastline are home to trout, bass, mullet, mackerel, flounder, croaker, pompano, bluefish, grouper, snapper, and many more. Fishing aficionados will enjoy casting their lines from the shore or from a boat in deeper waters. If you want to view the fish rather than catch them, try snorkeling around one of the numerous shipwreck sites under the waves. Depending on the time of year and the water temperature, you may see tiger sharks, damselfish, angelfish, wrasses, lionfish, and other tropical fish that migrate north in warm weather.
A Coastal Recreational Fishing License is required to fish on the Outer Banks, though kids under 16 are exempt. You don’t need a license for charter boat and pier fishing, which are covered by a blanket license. To get a license, visit the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
Whether in the water or on the beach, watch out for jellyfish! These fascinating creatures pack a punch with their stinging tentacles. They often wash up onto shore with the tide, so watch your step as you explore the beach.
You can also find starfish in the tide pools after the tide goes out. Take some pictures, feel the starfish walk across your hands, and then be sure to return them to their home in the ocean.
Numerous types of crabs live in the water and on the beach. Sand crabs often come darting out of their holes to grab tiny delicacies from the surf, and you may see larger crabs in the water close to the shore. If you have children, be sure to schedule an evening for ghost crab hunting. These tiny, iridescent crabs come out in huge numbers after dark, searching the beach for a delicious late-night snack. Take your flashlight and a camera, and sweep your light slowly along the beach to catch the small crabs in the beam. When the light hits them, they will freeze for a few seconds, giving you the chance to take a quick picture!
Any time you enter the ocean, you know that large animals such as sharks and dolphins may be in the water. Sharks are an essential part of the marine ecosystem; however, it is highly unusual for sharks to come near the shore during the day. Reports of sharks appearing near swimmers at the Outer Banks are very, very rare. Avoid swimming near fishing areas or in the late evening, and you will have no need to fear these masters of the sea.
One of the best parts of visiting the beach is getting to observe and sometimes interact with wildlife that you don’t see every day. Dolphins, crabs, starfish, sea turtles, and other marine creatures provide exciting learning opportunities for visitors of all ages. In order to enjoy these incredible Outer Banks wildlife experiences to the fullest, remember to maintain a healthy respect for the animals as you share their natural environment with them.