DMA, other agencies partner to protect rare sea turtle nest at SMR

A rare loggerhead sea turtle nest stands roped off and protected on the beachfront at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is playing host to some very special guests this summer – hundreds of loggerhead sea turtle eggs in a recently-discovered nest in the dunes on the installation’s beachfront. 

It’s only the second nest discovered on that stretch of beach in the last ten years. The first one did not survive a series of coastal storms, but several agencies are partnering together to help ensure this one makes it the distance. SMR is working together with the natural resource managers from the Department of Military Affairs and from Naval Air Station Oceana, as well as with scientists from the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center and biologists from U.S. Fish and Wildlife  and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to help protect the rare nest until the hatchlings emerge. 

The nest was first discovered after tracks, or a “crawl,” were spotted on a routine patrol conducted by the NAS Oceana natural resource program, which helps patrol the beachfront at the Navy’s Dam Neck Annex and SMR.

Tracks from a loggerhead sea turtle led researchers to the nest on SMR’s beachfront. (Contributed photo)
(Contributed photo)

“We patrol about four miles of beach. We patrol all the way down to Sandbridge, and all the way up to the SMR secured fence,” said Michael Wright, the natural resources manager for NAS Oceana. “The aquarium patrols to the other side of this fence. We patrol the beach, we look for a crawl, which may indicate the presence of a nest. Because resources are limited it is important for agencies and organizations to partners with one another. In this case, the Navy is partnering with the State, USFWS, SMR, Aquarium and BBNWR to help conserve sea turtles.”

Ken Oristaglio, the natural resources program manager for Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett who also overseas natural resources for SMR, knew it would take more than just his department to help protect the nest. 

“We try to do our part doing weed control at Lake Christine and on the dunes, but this is a higher level or responsibility,” said Oristaglio. “It’s more involved and labor intensive.”

“I thought it was really cool,” said Lt. Col. Christopher S. Dunn, commander of SMR. “Of course being a military guy I immediately started thinking what do I need to do? Who do I need to notify? Do I need to put up a fence? I didn’t know what to do with it. Then Ken started to describe to me the partnership.”

He explained the partnership between the Navy, SMR and the Aquarium, leading to a face-to-face meeting of representatives for all involved agencies July 30, 2020, at SMR. During the meeting, the different agencies discussed their roles monitoring the beaches and protecting this and other sea turtle nests in Virginia Beach. 

“It’s a rare thing for us and interesting to have a sea turtle nest and to learn what we’re doing to take care of it,” said Dunn. 

“For sea turtle nesting, to some degree the entire state is managed by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, but federal lands are managed by their own federal entities, so the partnership is really between the federal folks and the state folks,” explained Susan Barco, research scientist and senior curator for the Virginia Aquarium. “Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is another organization in this partnership. We’re working with them, they’re sharing some equipment and doing research on nest temperature, specifically the effect of moving nests and whether incubation affects ambient temperature. We have sensors that are in the nest, and a sensor pole that’s adjacent to the nest. We’re looking at moisture levels and temperature levels inside and outside the nest.”

The partnership also conducts lighting assessments in the area, since hatchling sea turtles are drawn to the ocean as it reflects light at night. 

“Lighting assessments are needed because lighting impacts the sea turtles coming on and leaving the beach,” said Wright. “The ones that hatch and have to go out to sea, they are attracted to light and use it as a navigational tool to reach the water. Normally the ocean reflecting light, coupled with waves crashing and creating white caps look the brightest to the turtles that are hatching at night. However, in situations like around here, they see the hotels and other artificial lighting, creating a brighter horizon. The hatchlings move towards the artificial lighting instead of the water, which can have deadly consequences for the hatchlings.  During our last lighting assessment, the Virginia Aquarium actually partnered with us, even though we contracted that effort, they were able to also do some of the lighting assessment work on the two bases.”

“When I come down to do a lighting survey I’ll make a determination if we need a lighting shield on the back of the nest,” said Erin Bates, the Aquarium’s stranding and research scientist for husbandry and nesting. 

The odds are stacked against survival for the turtles, as only one percent of the nest can be expected to survive. Just making it off of the beach after hatching provides some nearly insurmountable odds. 

(U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

“We’ve got a predator exclusion screen on it now,” Bates said. “When it gets closer to hatch time we’ll actually switch that out for one that has a larger mesh size called a self-releasing screen so they can climb right out of it.”

Weather can provide yet another challenge to successful nesting. In 2014, storms wiped out the last nest found on SMR. This year, Hurricane Isaias posed a real threat to the nest, but the Virginia Aquarium scientists said the nest appears to have survived intact. 

Eggs generally hatch about 60 days after being laid, which means if everything goes well, this nest should see its first hatchlings around the end of August. It would be significant since Virginia Beach doesn’t get many loggerhead nests each year, as it lies at the northern edge of the loggerhead’s nesting distribution. 

“We don’t get the kind of numbers that Florida or even North Carolina get,” said Bates. 

The partnership between the entities involved extends beyond just turtle nesting response. For example, Oristaglio’s department partners with the Navy’s natural resources program to help control invasive species of vegetation along the beachfront. 

“We had close to two acres spread around here, but now we only have about 95 square feet,” Oristaglio said in reference to the invasive weeds on SMR’s dunes. “We’ve almost eradicated it.”

“In addition to the work that we do together on the marine side of life, you guys have been very supportive of us as well dealing with invasive species control work,” said Wright. “Ken and I are always sharing our biological data that we collect. The Navy data helps inform SMR’s Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan and vice versa.”

The group also discussed other ways each entity can help the others, including helping staff future volunteer efforts and equipment sharing. That level of cooperation and teamwork can only benefit everyone involved, said Dunn. 

“Programs like this, particularly environmental programs are something that can help make this post special, because it’s unlike any other property the Virginia National Guard has,” explained Dunn. “Nobody else has beach. Nobody else has this ecological system that we can get involved with and participate in and be good partners to help with the environment and stewardship of our natural resources.”