The Out-of-Towners

Loggerhead sea turtles are seasonal visitors to Virginia’s waters.

It’s a late summer or early fall night on a quiet beach somewhere on the Virginia coast.

In the cool sand, there’s a stirring. Slowly, it begins to take form in the dim light. And then they emerge—tiny loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings, flippers working furiously as they crawl from their nest. Ahead lies a slow, treacherous journey across the beach, where predators like raccoons and ghost crabs might be waiting. But forward they inch with determination, until the first advancing wash of waves laps them up and draws them out into the ocean. 

It’s not an easy launch into life, but it’s only the beginning for these ocean-dwelling reptiles, explains Erin Bates of the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program, whose work includes research, education and outreach, protection, rescue, and rehabilitation for Virginia’s sea turtles.

Once in the water, says Bates, loggerheads that have hatched along the Atlantic coastline engage in a multi-day “swim frenzy” that propels them to the Gulf Stream. From there, it was once something of a mystery where they went next, but recent research suggests that the young turtles remain within the circulating currents of the Northern Atlantic gyre or find their way to the shoreless Sargasso Sea contained within the gyre. Named for the enormous mats of floating sargassum seaweed that form important nursery grounds for a wide range of ocean species here, the Sargasso Sea offers both food and shelter to the baby turtles.

At five to seven years—and now about the size of dinner plates—the juvenile turtles will make their way back towards the coast. “Most of the adults prefer hanging out in the open ocean, and will feed and forage out there,” explains Bates. “Most of the juveniles, however, like to be nearer to the shore.” They’ll often return to the general area where they were hatched, says Bates, but as more work is done tracking the turtles, “We are also finding that is not necessarily the case with all of them.” But the Chesapeake Bay, she says, provides an ideal environment for young sea turtles, offering warm waters and the blue crabs, horseshoe crabs, clams, mollusks, and even jellyfish the turtles feed on. 

Still more years—quite a few in fact—elapse until turtles reach breeding age; loggerheads truly play the long game. Although Bates acknowledges that “we don’t have really good data” on how long they can live, it’s estimated that they might enjoy a lifespan of 50 to 75 years, which means there could be sea turtles cruising off the coast of Virginia that hatched during the Eisenhower administration. But long-lived also means slow to grow, and turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until their late 20s to early 30s. Only then will the females return to shore, briefly, every few years, to dig a nest, lay their eggs, and leave them to their fate. (Males, once they complete their first dash to the water, will remain at sea the rest of their lives.) 

Bates says that in her work she finds a surprising number of people who don’t know that we have sea turtles in Virginia and are sometimes surprised to encounter them. As fully grown adults, loggerheads can be up to three feet long and weigh 300 pounds or more, and it might come as a startling encounter if you’re out on the water and come across one floating, basking at the surface. Your author, as a child, was once disporting with friends in the warm summer waters off Chincoteague Island when a large sea turtle suddenly surfaced in our midst to the considerable surprise of all parties, probably including the turtle’s. 

“They are more afraid of you than you are of them,” says Bates, although she cautions that they do have powerful jaws (for crushing mollusks) and powerful flippers, “so give them their space.”

But what if you come across one that appears to be injured, or is tangled in fishing nets, or otherwise in trouble? (In the fall, turtles that have failed to move south to warmer waters can get “cold stunned.”) “The best thing to do is to stay with the turtle if they can, and then give us a call,” says Bates. The stranding team can be reached 24/7 at 757-385-7575, and they not only rescue ill or injured turtles but also run a rehabilitation program to nurse them back to health. “They stay for as little as a day or up to two years,” Bates says; with their slow metabolisms, the turtles can take a long time to recover. 

“We joke that we do things on turtle time here.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

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