By Emma Dlutkowski, Seasonal Biological Science Technician at Cape Hatteras National Seashore 

Sea turtle species at Cape Hatteras National Seashore 

Of the world’s seven species of sea turtle, five have been documented nesting at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The most common species of sea turtle to nest at Cape Hatteras are loggerheads (Caretta caretta), and in fewer numbers, green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). A few Kemp’s ridley’s (Lepidochelys kempii) often nest in the Seashore, and occasionally a leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). In 2015, two hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) nests were documented in the Seashore, a rarity since the hawksbill’s nesting range is in tropical waters.

When sea turtles nest 

All these sea turtle species usually nest at night, except Kemp’s ridleys, who nest during the day. At Cape Hatteras, peak nesting season is in June and July, although the first nests are usually laid in May, and nesting can continue into the fall. In 2023, a nest was laid as late as December! 

The steps of the nesting process 

Step 1: Arriving on the beach and choosing a nest site 

The nesting process starts when a female sea turtle crawls out of the ocean and up the beach to choose a spot to nest. A sea turtle might crawl directly to a place where she then nests, or she might meander around on the beach a bit before she decides on a nesting location.  

Step 2: Body pitting 

Once she has picked out a place she likes, she will start “body pitting,” which is done by sweeping the front flippers vigorously across the surface of the sand. This is done until a pit forms. The depth of the pit varies by species, with green sea turtles tending to make deep body pits. 

Step 3: Digging an egg chamber 

Next, the sea turtle will dig an egg chamber with her rear flippers. The egg chamber is a hole straight down that gets wider and is rounded at the bottom.  

Step 4: Laying eggs 

When the egg chamber is deep enough (depth also varies by species), the sea turtle will begin to lay eggs. Sea turtles will often brace their rear flippers on the surface of the sand on either side of the egg chamber during egg laying, but some sea turtles like to lay their eggs with their rear flippers in the egg chamber. The number of eggs laid per clutch depends on the species, but it is often over 100.  

Step 5: Covering the eggs 

When she has finished laying her eggs, the sea turtle will cover them by using her rear flippers to scoop sand into the egg chamber and tamp it down. Next, she will sweep her front flippers across the surface of the sand again, similar to body pitting, but this time the objective is to throw sand behind her to further cover the nest. After doing this several times, she will pause using her front flippers, and will swish her back flippers back and forth over the sand. Then she will resume covering with her front flippers again, gradually scooting forward as she covers. This creates a pile of fluffy sand over the eggs and the surrounding area, disguising the exact location of the eggs. 

Step 6: Leaving the beach 

When the sea turtle has completed covering, she will crawl back to the ocean and swim away. The entire process of nesting can take quite a while, with some individuals taking a longer time than others. Often a nesting sea turtle can be on the beach for 1 ½ – 2 hours. 

How you can help nesting sea turtles 

If you are on the beach at night and are fortunate to see a nesting sea turtle, make sure to give her plenty of space during all stages of the nesting process, including while she is crawling on the beach, and leaving and entering the ocean. Sea turtles are easily disoriented by white lights, so avoid using these on the beach at night, as well as taking flash photos. Red is a good color for a light to take on the beach at night, since this color light does not bother sea turtles.

When you leave the beach for the day, make sure to take all beach equipment with you. If you choose to dig a hole on the beach, make sure to fill it in when you leave, so that nesting turtles won’t fall into it. Although sea turtles nest mostly at night, occasionally they will still be on the beach after sunrise, so make sure to keep this in mind while beach driving or doing other beach recreation, especially early in the day.

And finally, if you are fortunate to find a nesting sea turtle at Cape Hatteras National Seashore either at night or during the day, please call 252-216-6892 to report it!

Photo Credit: Cape Hatteras National Seashore

About Emma 

Emma Dlutkowski is working as a Biological Science Technician (“BioTech”) at Cape Hatteras National Seashore for her third season. She has also worked on sea turtle nesting projects in Florida, South Carolina, and the U.S. Virgin Islands for a total of eight nesting seasons, including the current 2024 nesting season. She has worked with loggerheads, greens, hawksbills, and leatherbacks. She loves learning about the ocean and being in the water, spending her spare time swimming, snorkeling, or scuba diving.