Sea Turtle Protection Program

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Nesting Season: mid-May to early-August
Hatching Season:
mid-July to late-September
View our nest excavation schedule here.

Efforts to protect sea turtles on Bald Head Island date back to 1980. Since its founding in 1983, the BHI 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. Bald Head Island has been designated as an “index beach” by NMFS, making our sea turtle nesting activity and Protection Program nationally recognized.
           
Our Sea Turtle Protection Program conducts saturation tagging, meaning that we attempt to intercept every nesting turtle that comes onto our beaches. In order to do so, we hire 6 interns every summer who conduct nightly patrols of our beaches from 9pm to 6am. Whenever a turtle is encountered, we apply PIT and flipper tags, acquire a DNA sample, and take straight and curved carapace measurements. We are the only NGO in North Carolina with the permitting to PIT tag turtles, which adds a unique aspect to our program. All information that we gather from nesting females is logged in our ongoing database, providing us with over 30 years of data on individuals.
 
While a female sea turtle is nesting, she enters a trance-like state, allowing us to apply tags and collect all samples and measurements. She will lay, on average, 120 eggs in each nest. In a given summer a female may lay up to 5 nests, although we then won’t see her for another 2-3 summers. When she finishes laying her eggs, the female will throw sand around in an attempt to camouflage the nest. As she returns to the water, our interns locate the eggs and bury a wire cage around the nest to protect it from predators such as fox and raccoon.
 
Some nests are laid in areas that are prone to erosion or flooding, and need to be moved. Any relocations must be completed within 6 hours, at which point development begins. Our full night patrols aid in relocating nests within a safe timeframe. The eggs are carefully transported to a safer area of the beach.
 
The eggs will incubate for about 50-70 days, during which volunteer nest monitors watch the nests for signs of predation and hatching. The nest will usually hatch all at once, and the hatchlings will scramble over each other as they make their way to the water. They hatch at night and use the light of the moon and the stars on the ocean to find their way. 
 
Three days after a nest hatches, Bald Head Island Conservancy staff and volunteer nest monitors excavate the nest. This serves two purposes: to take an inventory of the nest, and to release any “stragglers” that may still be in the egg chamber. An inventory is taken so that we can determine success rates of the mothers. We do this by counting the number of empty eggshells found and comparing it to the number of unhatched eggs. Sometimes, there are still live hatchlings in the nest, which we will release on the beach so they can make it to the ocean. Excavations are free and open to the public, so check our homepage and Facebook during the summer for times and locations!
 
On our beaches, we typically see loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta), and occasionally green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). All seven species of sea turtles worldwide are either critically threatened or endangered, which is what makes protecting nesting mothers and hatchlings so important! To see how sea turtles on Bald Head Island are doing, please see the Sea Turtle Statistics below.


How can I help the sea turtles?

  • Stop by the Conservancy for some red cellophane to put over your flashlight. Turtles are disoriented by white light, but can’t see red light!
  • Fill in holes on the beach and pack up your beach equipment. Turtles can easily fall into holes or run into your beach gear if left overnight.
  • Always remember your reusable shopping bags to help reduce the use of plastic.
  • Participate in BHI Conservancy Programs - as a non-profit, all proceeds from programs go directly back to serving our mission of conservation, education, and preservation.
  • Adopt a sea turtle nest!
  • Attend our excavations!  See our excavation schedule here.

Join the Sea Turtle Protection Program

  • Apply to become a Sea Turtle Intern •  Visit our Job Openings page for available internship opportunities
  • Become a Nest Monitor •  Email us at /sea-turtle-protection-program or stop by the Barrier Island Study Center for more information
  • Adopt a Nest •  Visit our Adopt-A-Program page for more information

If you see a sea turtle on the beach, please call our Wildlife Emergency Hotline at 910-457-0089 x 5.


Sea Turtle Statistics

2016 Sea Turtle Season

Sea Turtle Nests • 1980 - Present

Sea Turtle Nests • 1980 - Present

The BHI Conservancy's Sea Turtle Protection Program monitors all nests laid on Bald Head Island, as well as the State Natural Area near Fort Fisher.  The graph below details all of the nests found in these areas since the program's inception.  Starting in 1997, the data was recorded as two separate numbers so we could truly document the sea turtles on BHI.  Nests laid on BHI only are documented in Green, while nests laid on both BHI and State Natural Area are documented in blue.  The dotted line is the linear regression, showing that over the past 35 years, there is a general decline in the number of nests per year.

 

Sea Turtle Nests • Past 10 Years

Sea Turtle Nests • Past 10 Years

The next graph below shows all nests on BHI and the State Natural Area over the past 10 years.  The linear regression on this one shows that for the past ten years, there has been a general increase in number of nests.  Since turtles take 25-30 years to mature, maybe some of the conservation efforts that the BHI Conservancy started in the 1980's are beginning to show!

 

Sea Turtle Nest Totals/Year • 1980 - Present

Sea Turtle Nest Totals/Year • 1980 - Present

This graph below details that actual sea turtle nest numbers for each year since the program's inception.  These numbers include nests found both on BHI and the State Natural Area.