Delaware NREC Fish and Wildlife Biologists, MERR Institute Volunteers Partner to Rescue Sea Turtle Eggs
A clutch of nearly 190 eggs laid by an endangered green sea turtle on the beach at Cape Henlopen State Park in late August was successfully moved on Oct. 5 to a climate-controlled room at the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. The move marks the latest in a series of actions to help the nesting – the first of its kind recorded in Delaware – and ensure the safety of the eggs.
“Sea turtles usually lay their eggs on beaches in warmer climates, and the sand temperature was getting too low for them to survive,” said DNREC Biologist Edna Stetzar, who was part of the team that painstakingly excavated and moved the eggs.
DNREC Division of Fish and Wildlife staff joined a group of 15 volunteers from MERR (the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute), and spent more than an hour moving the ping-pong-ball-sized white eggs one by one into specially-prepared 22-quart styrofoam boxes. With a Fish and Wildlife Enforcement escort, the eggs were transported by car – very slowly, so as not to jostle their precious contents – to the nearby University of Delaware campus. In the climate-controlled chamber, under the watchful eyes of MERR volunteers, temperatures were gradually raised by 2 degrees every three hours with the goal of reaching optimal hatching temperature of about 80 degrees.
"These eggs have had a lot of obstacles," said MERR Executive Director Suzanne Thurman, who led the MERR team in the delicate move. "But this is a big step in helping them survive."
Since the nest’s discovery by a Delaware State Parks ranger who observed the green sea turtle mother laying the eggs near a jetty on Aug. 18, high tides, predators, hurricanes and tropical storms have threatened its survival. The nest was first protected from the encroaching tide by moving it to higher ground, and then protected from predators by erecting an enclosure around the site and posting 24 hour guard. A week after the first move, Hurricane Irene deposited a heavy14-inch layer of sand on top of the nest. After being carefully excavated by hand from the effects of Irene, volunteers were faced with the same task after Tropical Storm Lee.
The green sea turtle is protected by Delaware’s endangered species regulations as well as federally protected as a threatened species. As a result, any dealings must pass though strict regulations. “Since the nest was laid, we have been working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Florida office and with North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Matthew Godfrey, who has experience with nesting,” Stetzar said. A special temperature module sent from North Carolina was buried in the sand at the same depth as the eggs, and helped make the determination that the eggs would have to be removed from the beach to have a chance of hatching, she said.
"We have such a devoted volunteer base, who at times stayed overnight to keep tabs on them. But it was still not the best conditions for them," Thurman said.
After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted permission to remove the eggs and incubate them, the Dean and faculty of the UD College of Marine Science and Policy gave permission to use their Lewes facility to incubate them. "We could not have done any of this without their incredible generosity," Thurman said. Many individuals and organizations also have helped with this endeavor, including Delaware State Parks, the Greene Turtle restaurant and sports bar, and members of the public, she added.
The eggs are continuing to be closely monitored by MERR volunteers, and could possibly hatch by late October or early November. Depending on if and when they do, a plan will be executed to transport the hatchlings to the ocean and get them on their way into the Gulf Stream.
“Water temperatures will be a big factor in where they can be safely released, so we’ll just have to see what the conditions are like if we have a hatch,” Stetzar said.
“A lot of people care very much about these little sea turtles, so we’ll keep hoping for the best,” said Thurman.