At the Bald Head Island Conservancy, our Sea Turtle Protection Program utilizes saturation tagging to intercept and identify every nesting turtle that comes onto our beaches. Our team conducts nightly patrols from 9PM to 6AM and deploys a range of techniques when encountering a turtle, including applying a passive integrated transponder (PIT), attaching a flipper tag, collecting a DNA sample, and taking both straight and curved carapace measurements. All the data we gather is recorded in our historical database, which spans over 40 years and provides a wealth of information on individual sea turtles that have visited Bald Head Island.
This rigorous tagging program allows us to gather valuable insights into the health and behavior of these endangered species. By closely monitoring sea turtle populations, our scientists can better understand how these creatures are responding to environmental changes and adapt conservation efforts accordingly. Join us in our mission to protect and preserve these magnificent creatures and their habitats.
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.
After the nesting female returns to the ocean, our interns protect the nest from predation by burying a protective mesh cage around the nest - preventing raccoons, foxes, and dogs from entering the nest, while allowing the hatchlings to later emerge unimpeded. Before the use of mesh cages became standard practice on Bald Head, predation resulted in a high nest mortality.
Three days after a nest hatches, the Sea Turtle Protection Team 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.
On our beaches, we typically see loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta), and occasionally green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). We have had a total of 37 green sea turtle nests, the first being in 1992. We’ve also been fortunate enough to document one leatherback nest in 2010 and one Kemp’s Ridley nest in 2020.
All seven species of sea turtles worldwide are either critically threatened or endangered, which is what makes protecting nesting mothers and hatchlings so important!
Three days after a nest hatches, Conservancy staff will excavate the nest to take an inventory of the eggs and release any hatchlings that are still inside.
The 2022 sea turtle nesting season on Bald Head Island (BHI) was a remarkable success story, with a record number of hatchlings making it to the ocean. The Bald Head Island Conservancy’s (BHIC) Sea Turtle Protection Team (STPT) worked tirelessly, patrolling the beaches of BHI for 151 days/nights during the 2022 nesting season, observing 148 nests, and recording 203 false crawls. Sixty-eight genetically distinct individual females were responsible for the 351 total nesting activities observed. Among them, a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) laid a nest on BHI for the second year in a row, while four legacy turtles – Claire, Sara, The Lovely Mrs. Bites, and Willine – made their welcome return.
The STPT applied two satellite tags this season to track the migration patterns of Willine and Sara over time. The first hatching event was observed on July 25th, while the last two nests were excavated on October 2nd. Approximately 16,377 eggs were laid on BHI beaches, producing a record number of hatchlings estimated to be 13,157. The mean hatch success rate was 81.9%, while the mean emerge success rate was 78.4%. For a third consecutive year, two predator exclusion cage (PEC) designs, MasterNet, and welded wire were installed to protect nests, and fortunately, there were no successful nest depredation attempts by coyotes, despite their observation on BHI beaches in summer 2022.
Although Hurricane Ian destroyed four nests on September 30th, no other nests were lost during the 2022 season. The BHIC’s STPP was established in 1983 in cooperation with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and BHI and the Conservancy are nationally recognized for their long-term sea turtle monitoring program. Nightly patrols for nesting mothers are conducted from 2100-0600 EDT and include the application of Inconel flipper tags, passive integrated transponder tags (PIT), and the collection of tissue biopsies for genetic analysis and eggs for stable isotope analysis (SIA). The Conservancy’s biologists and collaborators can track and conduct studies on the reproductive ecology, migration, and population trends of nesting loggerhead (Caretta caretta), green (Chelonia mydas), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtles thanks to this 35+ year dataset.
Become part of our Sea Turtle Protection Program and support Bald Head Island sea turtle conservation.Donate
Get the chance to be inside the ropes for the nest excavation and potentially watch hatchlings make it to sea!Donate
Get the chance to be inside the ropes for ALL of the nest excavations laid by your adopted sea turtle mom.Donate