CAPE LOOKOUT, CARTERET COUNTY -

Every spring several species of sea turtles gather around Cape Lookout Bight. Scientists aren't sure why more than one hundred turtles visit this spot each year and are catching some of the turtles to learn more.

"That's definitely something that we are trying to figure out. It is a very rare occurrence; turtles of this density aren't known to occur very many places." says National Marine Fisheries Service Research Fishery Biologist, Larisa Avens.

Avens and a group of scientists from across eastern Carolina are spending two weeks in May doing field studies on the turtles. A net is set out to catch the turtles, and is checked every half an hour. Things like sting rays are removed and turtles are taken aboard to be tagged.

"The types of things that we do to the turtles are very similar to the types of things (done) at the doctors office or veterinarians do to our pets. And so although it might cause the turtle discomfort at the time, there should be no long-lasting effects." says Avens.

Some of the largest turtles they have tagged were 200-300lbs. Almost all the turtles the scientists have caught were loggerheads. Avens says she was impressed with the size and also the selection of turtles.

"What's unusual this year we've been out here a few times before catching turtles and only caught loggerheads, this year we've caught a few Kemps Ridley turtles." says Avens.

Unmanned underwater drones were also used in the field study. Scientists from the N.O.A.A. Coastal Services Center programed the drones to use sonar to find the turtles.  One of these scientists, Rob Downs, says usually they use the drones to look for inanimate objects.

This is the first time they have used them to look for turtles. Downs says they have turned up the sensitivity of the sonar to better locate the turtles, but this does decrease the range. The effort should better quantify how many turtles there are in the area.

"They haven't had a great way to count the ones that are on the bottom if they don't get in the nets or they don't see on the surface. So we are using the sonar to try to map the ones that are staying down on the bottom." says Downs.

A myriad of scientific organizations cooperated on this turtle tagging project from all across eastern Carolina. The study was led by N.O.A.A..