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Just keep swimming: Seven sea turtles released into Gulf Stream

Researchers released seven sea turtles into the ocean Wednesday after a year of studying their navigation systems.

BALD HEAD ISLAND – For the first time since birth, seven young sea turtles tasted free air before diving into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

During the summer of 2015, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill visited Bald Head Island and collected 16 hatchlings from a variety of different nests. The juvenile loggerhead turtles were transported to Chapel Hill so a research team led by Kenneth and Catherine Lohmann could study their navigation systems. Earlier this summer, nine of the hatchlings were released into the Gulf Stream, a strong, warm Atlantic Ocean current that flows off the coast.

On Wednesday, after being studied for a full year, the remaining seven turtles were released.

The research has already resulted in significant changes in the way conservationists protect Bald Head turtles, said Suzanne Dorsey, executive director of Bald Head Island Conservancy and Smith Island Land Trust.

Dorsey said she and other conservationists have been effectively using chicken wire cages to keep predators, such as foxes, away from sea turtle eggs.

Ken Lohmann said 20 years of research indicates sea turtles are remarkably sensitive to earth’s magnetic field and much of their navigation is based on their ability to detect it.

Dorsey wanted to know whether metal cages affect the young turtles’ abilities to use that magnetic field, which she likened to humans using a compass.

“It just seems like this amount of metal couldn’t possibly interfere with it,” Dorsey said.

According to studies conducted by the researchers, the magnetic fields produced by the iron mesh does alter the magnetic field around the turtle eggs, which could in turn affect their navigation abilities, Lohmann said. He added that further studies are needed to determine how much of an effect it has.

This summer, instead of using metal cages, Dorsey said she and others wrapped bright orange plastic mesh around the nests, which were supported by plastic PVC pipes.

“What’s really great about this is it’s science that really informs conservation,” she said. “There are beach communities that use metal cages in the same way we do to protect our sea turtles from animal predation and now we know that may interfere with their navigation system and here are some alternatives.”

Dorsey said they dropped the hatchlings off in the Gulf Stream in order to “give them a boost” and hopes to see them return to Bald Head Island 25 to 30 years from now to lay their own eggs.

Reporter Makenzie Holland can be reached at 910-343-2371 or Makenzie.Holland @StarNewsOnline.com.