Paddlers enlisted in search for threatened turtles


For three Saturdays in May, dozens of teams of canoers and kayakers will explore the tidal creeks behind Wrightsville Beach and Masonboro Island Reserve with eyes peeled for the little, black-and-white spotted heads of diamondback terrapin turtles peeking through the surface of the water.

Participants will learn how to quickly spot the turtles and log each sighting on a smartphone application during one of two training sessions for the 2015 Terrapin Tally, a citizen science program coordinated by the N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Hope Sutton, stewardship coordinator and southern sites manager, likened the task to finding a needle in a haystack.

“You normally won’t even see their shells at all,” Sutton said of the turtles, whose shells are only 4-6 inches long for males and 7-9 inches long for females.

This year will mark the second time local citizens are enlisted to help state officials better understand the turtles, a state species of special concern due to their dwindling population. Sutton said diamondback terrapins used to be common fixtures on the North Carolina shore.

“There are records of fishermen not being able to pull up nets because so many terrapins were caught in their nets,” Sutton said. “That is not the kind of story you hear these days.”

Threats to the turtles include development of the coastline and increase of the pots used to harvest blue crabs, Sutton said. In 2014, for the inaugural event, Sutton said organizers did not know how many sightings to expect, but one two-hour paddling session yielded 83 terrapin sightings.

The turtles are most active in April and May, Sutton said, when they mate and spend more time in groups. High winds, however, made spotting the tiny turtles in the tidal creeks difficult during some sessions.

“We learned that it is really, really difficult to see those little, tiny terrapin heads sticking out if it starts getting choppy,” Sutton said. Paddlers sighted 144 terrapins total in the first year.

Three new routes around the marshes surrounding Harbor Island are planned for the 2015 event, Sutton said. Paddlers on the Wrightsville Beach routes could gather clues used to solve a terrapin mystery: turtle behavior and distribution that led to two documented terrapin nests laid near the John Nesbitt Loop in the last few years.

About 180 volunteers are needed to cover 15 routes during morning and afternoon paddling sessions on May 2, 9 and 16. Participants must attend a training session before the event: one on April 9, 6-8 p.m., or another on April 11, 10 a.m. to noon, both at the University of North Carolina Wilmington Center for Marine Science Auditorium.

Because it can be demanding to navigate the pre-planned route, keep an eye out for terrapins, and log data on a smartphone, Sutton said the ideal volunteers are already pretty comfortable on the water. All participants must provide their own smartphone and kayak or canoe.

For more information, or to reserve a spot at one of the training sessions, email Marie Davis at


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