Bald Head Island, NC – Scientists hope to fit four of Bald Head's nesting loggerheads with data transmitters to learn more about where the turtles travel, and the potential hazards they face. For the next year or more, the transmitters will send back signals as the turtles range north and south through the seasons.
According to sea turtle researcher Dr. Michael Coyne, there has long been debate about whether or not commercial fishing has an impact on the loggerheads.
"But because we really didn't have any idea of where turtles are spending their time, you can't say anything conclusive about it one way or the other," he says. "So we're starting to get information now about where the turtles are spending their time, so we can look at what fisheries operate there and when their operating, and see if there's an overlap."
Coyne is the founder of Seaturtle.org, which organized this project with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission and the Bald Head Island Conservancy. The group has tracked twelve turtles this way since starting in 2003, charting a range from Delaware down to Florida. Loggerheads are listed as 'Threatened' under the Endangered Species Act.
Coyne says his group is concerned because transmitters show many turtles spending the winters near a proposed Navy sonar range off North Carolina's Cape Lookout.
"That's really new information that nobody had before," says Coyne, "that can go into the planning process for when the Navy makes site selections and things like that."
This is the fourth year the group had tagged loggerhead turtles with data transmitters. The process starts when scouts from the Bald Head Island Conservancy identify a female coming onto the beach to nest. When the turtle is finished laying her eggs, a team of researchers corral her in an open wooden box. Their first job, says Coyne, is to clean the turtle's shell. Loggerhead turtles tend to travel with a coating of algae and barnacles. The transmitter, about the size of a small shoe, is then attached to the turtle's shell with epoxy and the turtle returns to the water. The procedure takes about an hour.
Because of underwater wear and tear, transmitters usually only function for a year or two. By seeking out rocky spaces to rest in, turtles tend to be rough on the equipment, Coyne says.
This week is the peak of loggerhead nesting season. According to Melissa Hedges of the Bald Head Conservancy, her group has already identified 43 nests this summer, roughly 15 more than the island had last year at this time. Loggerhead turtles will continue nesting through mid-August.