The BHI Conservancy's Sea Turtle Protection Program
Efforts to protect the habitats and activities of sea turtles on Bald Head Island date back to 1980. Since its inception in 1983, the Bald Head Island Conservancy has coordinated and sponsored the Sea Turtle Protection Program, in cooperation with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service. As one of NMFS's "index beaches," Bald Head Island is nationally recognized for its sea turtle nesting activity, and for the Conservancy's efforts to protect this resource.
Each summer, the Conservancy funds and houses multiple interns to conduct field work for the Sea Turtle Protection Program, under the direction of our sea turtle biologist. The interns are typically undergraduates majoring in natural resource related fields. This internship opportunity is both unique and demanding. The interns not only conduct nightly patrols of the beach, but also experience the full range of job functions associated with running a small nonprofit organization.
The majority of an intern’s summer is spent patrolling for nesting sea turtles from dusk until dawn on an all terrain vehicle. BHIC is the only NGO in North Carolina permitted to flipper tag nesting female sea turtles. Tagging every possible female, or saturation tagging, provides a census of all nesting females. Very few other beaches conduct tagging studies as rigorous. Data collected from nesting sea turtles includes GPS nest locations, flipper tag data, PIT tagging, straight and curved line carapace dimensions, and, occasionally, satellite tagging.
After the nesting female returns to the ocean, interns protect the nest from predation by burying a protective wire cage around the nest thus preventing raccoons, foxes, and dogs from disturbing the nest, while allowing the hatchlings to emerge unimpeded. Before the use of wire cages became standard practice on Bald Head Island, predation resulted in a nest mortality of approximately 50%. This has been greatly reduced in recent years.
Nests laid in a suboptimal location may be relocated to a safer location. Eggs may be in danger if they are laid below or close to the high tide line, in an area of high foot traffic, or of low sand quality. A nest can be relocated within the first six hours after it was laid, which is facilitated by our intensive beach patrolling.
As our interns return to school in mid-August, the sea turtle biologist assumes patrol duties to monitor nesting activity and emerging hatchlings. Since the incubation time for sea turtles in our locale is approximately sixty days, Bald Head hosts sea turtle hatching events from late July through mid-October.
After a nest has hatched, or if the nest is overdue, it will be excavated to determine nesting success. Success is determined by counting the number of eggs that successfully hatched vs. the total in the nest. This is evident by the number of empty eggs left in the nest along with the number of unhatched eggs. Frequently, viable hatchlings are rescued and released on the beach so they can make their way to the ocean.
Most of the sea turtles that visit our beaches are loggerheads (Caretta caretta), but we will occasionally see the Atlantic green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas).
Sea turtle nesting on Bald Head Island has experienced a general downward trend over the past 25 years but we are hopeful that through our protection efforts the number of nesting females will begin increasing in the years to come. Find out what you can do to help us continue this important research so that we ensure future generations will have the chance of witnessing these majestic, ancient creatures.