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Tracking turtles on Bald Head Island


By George Olsen


New Bern – INTRO - Work this week on Bald Head Island seeks to answer one of the most basic questions surrounding sea turtles. George Olsen has more.

09:20 Just think about standing on the beach and looking out you know there are turtles out there but where are they?

Dr. Michael Coyne, the founder of seaturtle.org and a research scientist at Duke University. For the public at large, the question of where the sea turtles are may be one of as long as they don't bother me, I won't bother them, but their whereabouts can affect work off our coast.

10:51 One of the interesting things we've found with the data so far is that because so many of the turtles go north and they're doing this north-south migration, when they come south during the wintertime it looks like there may be a fairly large aggregation in a relatively small area off-shore. So one of the things to watch for in this area is the proposed sonar range off Onslow Bay. It looks like some of these loggerheads can be aggregating around this sonar range, so that's something that the Navy will have to consider in planning.

To find out where the sea turtles are, Dr. Coyne and interns and volunteers with the Bald Head Island Conservancy were trolling the beaches this week looking out for nesting sea turtles so they could attach satellite tags that will track their movements.

04:32 We have four satellite tags, though unfortunately right as we got here we found that one is not working right, but it won't get here till the end of the month, so we're just putting on three on this trip.

The first was attached Sunday night and the other two Monday night so there are an additional three sea turtles loggerheads, specifically providing information on where the turtles go. That will be in addition to the 12 other loggerheads tagged in previous years at Bald Head Island, though not all are continuing to provide tracking data.

05:50 The longest that we've gotten one to last is just a little over two years. I know of other research groups that have gotten them to last three years and that's the longest they've gotten them to last. Unfortunately loggerheads are pretty hard on the equipment. They like to rest under ledges and things like that so the transmitters get banged around quite a bit. They have an antenna that comes out of the top that often gets sheared off over time. They just get beat up.

The transmitters are placed on the turtles once they've finished nesting. Researchers place a pre-fabricated box around the turtle to hold her in place, then clean the shell of algae and barnacles so they'll have a smooth dry surface on which to epoxy the transmitter. The transmitter costs about $2000, satellite time costs about $3000. The money adds up, which explains why only 15 turtles have been tagged so far at Bald Head Island but they're not the only turtles providing information. Dr. Coyne's seaturtle.org website provides a clearinghouse of sorts for his turtle tracking efforts as well as those of researchers all over the world.

12:26 I'd initially set this tool up for my own use. It's basically a program that takes the information we get from the satellites and generates maps automatically because I got a little bit lazy and didn't like doing it manually each day. Once we got that set up it was pretty clear there were a lot of people who were doing the same things and might like to take advantage of it.

The tagging went pretty quickly this year, perhaps because of some good sea turtle news after years of so-so-news at best. The Bald Head Island Conservancy regularly tracks sea turtle nests on the island, and they are doing so again this nesting season which runs through mid-August. Melissa Hedges is a naturalist at the Bald Head Island Conservancy.

03:05 Our peak at Bald Head was about 205 nests back in 1985. That is the only time we've had over 200 nests on Bald Head. Up until about the 90's they had over a 100 nests on Bald Head. We haven't reached 80 nests in about 5 years, though this year we're about 13 nests ahead of last year at this time, so this could be a pretty good year.

Seaturtle.org is expecting a new transmitter to replace the defective one to show up at the end of the month, at which point they'll search out one more nesting loggerhead to complete their summer tagging project. I'm George Olsen.