This nesting season, a new loggerhead sea turtle appeared three times on Bald Head Island (BHI), North Carolina to lay her eggs.
The new visitor sported an unfamiliar tag that ultimately told a surprising story: TTF766. Paul Hillbrand, coordinator of the Sea Turtle Conservancy Program on BHI, checked their database but found no record of her. The Sea Turtle Protection Program on BHI is a saturation tagging program, meaning their goal is to intercept and tag/ID as many of the nesting turtles as possible. Typically, about half of the 30-40 sea turtles they encounter are returning visitors, and the other half have no tag and represent brand new nesters on BHI.
“In some rare cases, we find unknown tags, as was the case with TTF766,” Hillbrand said. “It was a welcome sight to see.”
Hillbrand is part of a large network of researchers and volunteers who work to protect and study sea turtles along the southeastern coast. He reached out to the contacts at a central database to see if he could identify who had first tagged TTF766 — and when and where.
Hillbrand quickly received word that the turtle in question had been identified. She was first tagged as a juvenile by biologists in South Carolina aboard a research vessel in May 2006.
TTF766 was tagged during a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) in-water turtle survey, whose biologists work from a converted shrimper to catch and study sea turtles in the environment where they spend the vast majority of their lives: the ocean. The in-water research gives biologists a better understanding of the overall sea turtle population — not just of the nesting mothers and hatchlings on beaches, but also the juveniles and males that never come ashore. Tagging these turtles helps biologists across state borders compare data on recaptured animals and see how far they’ve traveled and how long they’ve survived.
Dr. Mike Arendt was one of the people present during that initial capture and has overseen the agency’s in-water sea turtle research since 2007. TTF766 was the seventh and final loggerhead sea turtle captured in the Charleston shipping channel that day. Arendt doesn’t have any distinct recollection of TTF766 from the 21 minutes that she was aboard the RV Lady Lisa, but she appeared to be in good health. During that time she was weighed, measured, tagged with both an internal PIT tag (similar to a pet’s microchip) and flipper tag, and released back into the Charleston shipping channel.
“Just knowing that I heard her exhale at least once while she was aboard our vessel makes her recent re-sighting that much more special,” Arendt said.
The biologists aboard SCDNR’s in-water survey have tagged >2500 loggerhead sea turtles in the ocean over the past 20 years, two-thirds of which were female — but TTF766 only marks the second time that one of those turtles tagged as a juvenile has been reported nesting on a beach. That’s because most programs don’t intercept females at night, Arendt said.
Hillbrand said he was elated when he found out TTF766 had been tagged 14 years ago as a juvenile.
“The significance of this is that she is pushing her species forward,” Hillbrand. “She made it to sexual maturity and is reproducing. That’s huge when it comes to sea turtles.” Depending on the species, sea turtles can take up to 30 years to reach sexual maturity. That’s thirty years in which animals must survive countless threats — “she had to navigate the beach, ocean, predators and anthropogenic obstacles so that she could repeat the process her own mother went through 20 or so years prior,” Hillbrand said.
“It takes four states, countless organizations and individuals to protect, conserve and manage the efforts along the eastern seaboard, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it,” Hillbrand said. “It seems the groundbreaking sea turtle protection work initiated in the 80s is showing signs of paying off.”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.