The Magnetic Personality of Sea Turtles

The Magnetic Personality of Sea Turtles

By Jason Frye

The stars are a little brighter on Bald Head Island. Step out onto the beach any night and you’ll see the difference that little or no light pollution makes; the sky is swimming with constellations. It’s this darkness, and the wild, natural side of Bald Head Island, which make it an ideal place to reconnect with the earth, sky and sea. At night you can spot deer and fox, eerie bioluminescent creatures in the surf, and one of the island’s most iconic visitors, the Loggerhead sea turtle.

Each summer scores of Loggerhead turtles return to the beaches and dunes of Bald Head Island to lay a clutch of eggs. A few months later, those nests “boil” and erupt, sending up to 100 hatchlings to the sea. Of these siblings, a handful of females will reach adulthood, mate, and, decades after they hatch, return to their birth beach— here on Bald Head Island—to continue the cycle and lay their own clutch of eggs.

The Magnetic Personality of Sea Turtles

The Bald Head Island Conservancy (BHIC) has led the charge in protecting the nesting turtles, nests and hatchlings (along with all the flora and fauna on the island) for more than three decades.

“We’ve been keeping records [on sea turtles] since 1980,” said Emily Hardin, Coastal Specialist and Sea Turtle Program Coordinator for the BHIC. “Field data sheets for nesting, hatching and stranding events from 1983 to present take up 28 two inch binders in the Barrier Island Study Center’s library.”

BHIC naturalists and interns collect data including the date, time and tide of each nesting; nest location; measurements of the carapace (shell); PIT microchip and flipper tag numbers; and, now, DNA samples. With all the sea turtle data collected and analyzed by BHIC and similar research and conservation groups the world over, it may come as a surprise that we have no definitive answer on just how sea turtles know their birth beach, the place they lay their own nest.

One researcher and Ph.D. candidate from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has a theory. As a child, J. Rogers Brothers saw a sea turtle nest emergence on Holden Beach, N.C., and it started a lifelong fascination with the ocean and with how migratory animals navigate over long distances. Sea turtles became a particular focus.

“Successful nesting requires a combination of different environmental features that are rare: soft sand, the right temperature for egg incubation, few predators, and an easily accessible beach. These factors are impossible to assess from far away, so for a turtle in the open ocean, selecting a nesting beach is no trivial task,” Brothers said. “The only way a female turtle can be sure that she is nesting in a favorable place is to nest on the same beach where she hatched.”

In a paper published in Current Biology, “Evidence for Geomagnetic Imprinting and Magnetic Navigation in the Natal Homing of Sea Turtles,” which Brothers co-authored with his advisor, Dr. Kenneth Lohmann, Brothers posits that sea turtles essentially have an inborn GPS that allows them to mark their birth beach using the Earth’s magnetic field.

“While our work does not exclude the possibility that turtles use additional sensory information (olfactory or visual) during the final approach to the beach, no known cue, other than magnetism, provides the information necessary to locate a specific nesting beach over a long distance.”

Brothers goes on to say that once a turtle locates her beach, she may be deterred from nesting by bright lights or the scent of a predator. Once she finds her beach, sand grain size, moisture content, and other factors will determine whether that’s the place for her nest.

The Magnetic Personality of Sea Turtles

Throughout the summer, the Conservancy’s turtle interns patrol the beach, looking for turtle tracks leading from the sea to the dunes, signs of a nesting turtle. Once they locate the turtle, they’ll watch her from a distance until she’s nesting, at which time it’s safe for them to approach and begin collecting data. After the nest is laid, they mark it, install an anti-predator cage, and monitor the nest until it hatches.

The Conservancy makes a number of efforts to educate Bald Head Island’s residents and visitors on sea turtle protection. From simple actions like turning off beach-facing lights and shading beach-facing windows, packing away any beach equipment at the end of the day, and keeping dogs on leashes, to more involved efforts like Turtle Walks and Adopt-A-Turtle or -Nest programs, it’s easy to make a difference in sea turtle conservation.

Hardin says that over the course of nearly 30 years and through the efforts of the Conservancy and its members and volunteers, “about 170,000 turtles have hatched from nests on our beaches.” In 25-30 years, as these turtles reach sexual maturity, they’ll return to lay their eggs here.

“If we look at [records from] the last 10 years, we see an increase in the number of nests per year,” said Hardin. “It’s possible that the conservation efforts made by volunteers and supporters of the Conservancy in its infancy are beginning to show.”

Brothers spent the summer of 2015 on Bald Head Island and said he was “extremely impressed” with their turtle program. “The BHIC has developed a model program that excels at monitoring the nesting population and conserving sea turtles, while simultaneously helping people understand and enjoy them,” said Brothers.

That said, there’s still work to do in protecting these creatures and there’s still research to be done. As far as Brothers’ hypothesis about magnetic fields goes, it raises questions about the metal cages conservation groups use to protect nests. When does the magnetic imprinting happen? If it happens while turtles are in the nest, will the metal cages be detrimental to the imprinting process? If turtles imprint when they leave the nest, how do manmade factors (like power lines and metal structures) impact imprinting? As researchers like Brothers continue their work, and as groups like the Bald Head Island Conservancy continue their preservation, protection and education efforts, we will become better equipped to help keep sea turtles safe.

The Bald Head Island Conservancy makes it easy to get involved. Visit or stop in at Turtle Central or the Barrier Island Study Center on the island for a full list of adoption and donation programs, to join the Conservancy, and to participate in Turtle Walks and additional volunteer and educational programs.

This article originally appeared in Haven 2016.

Common Ground: Generations Connected by a Love of Place

Common Ground:

Generations Connected by a Love of Place

In our newest issue of Haven Magazine, Odette Embert Arnold talks to families who have been coming to Bald Head Island for decades. They talk about sitting on the porch with grandparents and teenaged children. They mention crabbing in the creek, scouring the beaches for shells, and striking out in the golf cart to search for fireflies at dusk. They describe a place where board games and puzzles tend to replace digital devices, and the unspoiled natural beauty provides the setting for adventures large and small.

These three families say Bald Head Island has a special ability to eliminate generation gaps as family members come together to share timeless pursuits and appreciate the island’s own eternal nature.

The Preisses

When the Preiss family gathers on Bald Head Island, they are likely to be four generations strong. Amy Preiss Barger said her dad first visited Bald Head Island in 1972 with college buddies from Chapel Hill for a weekend of exploration and adventure. Now, grandparents, parents and children typically gather on Bald Head for every summer holiday. What they love most about Bald Head Island is being together in a beautiful, timeless place. As Amy said, “My children have never known a Fourth of July anywhere else. And until very recently, I don’t think they even knew other beaches.”

The Cosgroves

The Cosgrove family has been going to Bald Head Island since the early 1960s. Eleanor and Ken Cosgrove helped to build the seventh home on the island in 1975 and as licensed airplane pilots, teamed up with another islander to build a makeshift airstrip. Their son Chris has been visiting the island since the age of six and moved to Wilmington from Gainesville, Fla so he and his family could visit Bald Head more often. Chris recalled that the island has always been a special place: “We did, and still do, multigenerational things, like fishing at the Point, crabbing on the creek, swimming at the beach and playing golf,” said Chris. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”

The Trasks

Dargan Tunstall said her parents, Judy and Web Trask, came to Bald Head Island years before they built a house, joining friends for the U.S. Open King Mackerel Tournament that they still attend each year. As children, Dargan and her sisters would stay on the island for three or four weeks at a time, spending time with aunts, uncles and cousins. The extended Trask clan still holds to the time-honored traditions the girls remember from childhood. “We just sit on the porch and hear the trees rustling and watch for the deer. We play cards and games, do puzzles. It’s a lot of family time, most of which is centered around the beach,” said Dargan.

The Best of Times

Childhood is such a fleeting time. As you watch your kids grow and mature with each passing day, this realization becomes all the more poignant.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. As soon as you have children, friends and family come forward with the same advice: Enjoy every minute. Before you know it, they’ll be grown. Often though, despite our best intentions, we become so caught up in a whirlwind of responsibilities—work, school, organized activities—that time slips away from us second by second. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. When, almost magically, we can come together at a place as simple and relaxed as Bald Head Island, we finally have a chance to slow down and catch our breath.

The Best of Times

Because no bridge connects Bald Head Island to the mainland, you leave your car behind and travel here by passenger ferry or private boat. When you arrive, your pace slows to that of an electric cart, bicycle, or your own two feet. You’ll have the chance to fully appreciate the beauty of the surroundings—quiet beaches, lush maritime forest, winding tidal creeks, and idyllic streetscapes.

The Best of Times

In so many ways, time almost feels suspended on Bald Head Island. Vacations here are reminiscent of an earlier era, when families and friends spent lazy summer afternoons lingering by the shore. The island’s East, West and South Beaches stretch for more than a dozen uninterrupted miles, providing a limitless playground for kids of all ages. And simple pleasures, like sandcastle building, still rule the day.

There’s a powerful feeling of safety and security here, and older children in particular enjoy a rare opportunity to run and roam with abandon. With so many wild places to explore, there’s no time to be bored. New adventures await around every bend—paddleboarding, kayaking, fishing, hiking, sailing. The list is endless.

Yes, childhood is fleeting. But you can resolve to savor each small moment. To draw out the days a little more. And to connect with each other in a meaningful way in a place like Bald Head Island. Knowing, that one day in the not-too-distant future, you’ll look back and smile.

These are truly the best of times.

This article originally appeared in Haven 2016.

A Natural Fit

Cape Fear Station and the Southern Living Inspired Community Program: A Natural Fit

When Southern Living magazine hand-selects candidates for their Inspired Communities designation, they consider the following: Does it embrace the natural beauty of the southern landscape? Does it display the best of Southern Living Inspired architecture? Does it create environments that foster gatherings, interactions and celebrations?

On the eastern end of Bald Head Island, in an esteemed community known as Cape Fear Station, they have answered an emphatic yes to each of these questions. Recently, the first home in this Southern Living Inspired Community opened for public tours.


Standing in the living room of the showpiece residence she helped create, interior designer Vicky Serany wistfully imagines its future. As stunning as it is, she doesn’t picture its residents treating it with kid gloves. Instead, she joyfully describes children coming in off the beach with sandy feet and wet swimsuits, dogs bounding in from the yard, and guests helping themselves to drinks and snacks around the center island.

“It’s the philosophy of second home design,” she explains. “Rest and relaxation, kids and pets—you mix it all in and maximize your time there together. That’s the thing about second homes: you know you are making memories. It’s a chance to focus on what is important.”

Vicky is adamant that, for a vacation home, carefree maintenance is key. “Everything in the house is super durable, basically indestructible.” You’ll find Sunbrella fabrics on the furnishings and shower curtains, quartz countertops in the kitchen, and distressed woods on the floors that only become more attractive with wear. “You can design a beautiful space,” she emphasizes, “but if it doesn’t function well, it’s useless.” Serany’s company, Southern Studio Interior Design, was part of the team that, along with Bald Head Island Limited, Allison Ramsey Architects and Whitney Blair Custom Homes, brought the home from conception to completion.


“There was a pervasive sense of excitement and energy around working with Southern Living, as well as the other partners,” says Jim Henry, Director of Development and Construction for Bald Head Island Limited, LLC. “The Southern Living Inspired Community both fits beautifully into the already established Cape Fear Station neighborhood, and stands on its own as a micro-environment within it. For this home, Allison Ramsey took the traditional, Low Country language that is its signature, and painted it with the Bald Head Island aesthetic that we have established here over 30 years.”

“It all starts with great architecture,” agrees Serany. “Less embellishment is needed when you have great design. When you have that, magic can happen.”

Jeff Sanderson, president and founder of Whitney Blair Custom Homes, expresses a sense of total satisfaction with the home, the first his company has built on Bald Head Island. Whitney Blair is part of the Southern Living Custom Builder Program and is a two-time Southern Living Builder of the Year award winner, most recently in 2015.

Looking to articulate what makes the home so special, Sanderson points to the overall sense of scale, proportion and balance. The 10-foot ceilings and eight-foot doors, for example, are pivotal to the interior’s beauty and comfort. “When proper scale and proportion are achieved,” he says, “people automatically find it aesthetically pleasing and feel comfortable in the space.”

Sanderson also speaks to the practicality of the home. “It’s easy to get good design and a beautiful home with an open checkbook,” he says. “The challenge is doing so on a budget.” Sanderson credits the collaborative process for bringing out creative solutions. As a result, he says, “The home stands as something that is attainable and an inspiration for good architecture and design. It shows what is possible.”


The design of the home blends traditional coastal elements with sleek, modern details. For example, strategically placed shiplap siding on the walls adds texture, giving a nautical, coastal look without being cliché, while clean lines and up-to-date materials bring a fresh flair throughout the home.

The four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home essentially has two master suites, one downstairs and the other upstairs. “It’s interesting to hear people who tour the home talk about which they would choose for their master,” says Serany. “Each appeals for a different reason.”

The downstairs master has a custom bed built into an arched alcove and a luxurious bathroom that features sleek details, natural materials, and an unexpected second shower that is outdoors, but only accessible through the inside.

At the opposite end of the house, the upstairs master opens onto a wide porch overlooking The Common, a village green at the center of Cape Fear Station. Looking out on the tops of oaks, cedars and palms, it gives a lofty tree-house effect to the suite.

The home has two additional bedrooms upstairs, one with a queen and the other with a queen and two bunks. The bunks are built into a wall unit with closets and additional storage space, making much of a smaller room.

But according to Sanderson, the space most likely to be fought over is the sleeping porch, a screened area with a custom-made bed suspended from ropes. Those who might be torn between, say, watching a Saturday afternoon football game on TV or being outside on a beautiful day, no longer have to choose: This private retreat has a wall-mounted flat-screen television that lets you indulge in both at the same time.

The sleeping porch is indicative of a common theme throughout the house: blurring the lines between the inside and out. Two walls in the living room are made up primarily of French doors that open to a wraparound porch, expanding the living spaces exponentially.

Subtle details, too, play with the inside-out juxtaposition, including the use of driftwood as a landscaping element that is carried inside with well-placed touches throughout.

“Bald Head Island is truly special,” explains Serany, “and design should be true to the place. The island values good design and honors nature.” To this end, Serany’s team also used the natural surroundings as inspiration for the muted palette. The colors are primarily warm grays and fresh white, with sea glass tints for added interest.

Homage is paid to the island’s historic significance, as well, especially as the location of an early United States Lifesaving Service Station, after which the community of Cape Fear Station was named. Archival photographs from the era are framed and placed throughout the home, including a grouping on the stairwell wall.


In calling out the special features of the home, Henry calls attention to the community’s enviable location on the island: just minutes by foot, bicycle or golf cart to East Beach, South Beach, and the Shoals Club at The Point of Cape Fear. “What has been accomplished here is impressive,” he says. “You have the beautiful homes and amazing amenities, yet you still feel like it’s the ends of the earth. You get to engage in the social surroundings, then retreat to your respite in the woods.”

The home’s family-friendly, open floor plan is also appropriate on Bald Head Island, he says. The atmosphere—both on the island and in the home—promotes a sense of community, a place for gathering with family and friends.

The home, and the greater community, seem to issue a standing invitation: Come on in and make yourself at home.


Southern Living Inspired Communities

We’re excited to announce that Bald Head Island is growing in the form of the first new neighborhood release in more than five years. Southern Living, the magazine known for Southern taste making, has partnered with Bald Head Island Limited, LLC, to create a community of homes that suit modern coastal living.

Southern Living Inspired Communities are hand-picked by the magazine’s editors for the way they embrace the natural beauty of the Southern landscape and embody the high quality of life their readers expect. The new neighborhood, across from The Common in Cape Fear Station, will open for sale on April 3, 2015, with a model home opening for tours in late summer.

“Cape Fear Station on Bald Head Island joins a small collection of elite developments awarded the Southern Living Inspired Communities designation, characterized by charm, taste and Southern spirit,” said Kristen Bryan, Associate Director Marketing for Southern Living.

The community’s lead builder, Whitney Blair Custom Homes, the recent winner of the Southern Living Builder of the Year award, will ensure the homes meet the Southern Living standard.

Homes in the Inspired Community exhibit the best of Southern architecture, with the generous porches, tall windows and high ceilings homeowners expect. Exterior details reveal an attention to detail that add to the character of the homes, and interiors are designed and decorated to enhance the coastal lifestyle. Each home comes fully furnished, and with prices under $900,000, they represent a tremendous opportunity to own a home on Bald Head Island.

To learn more about the Southern Living Inspired Community at Cape Fear Station on Bald Head Island, stop by the Real Estate Sales office in the Harbour or give us a call at 800.888.3707. Details on the community and homes are available online; simply click the links to download the brochure and flyer.

Ask the Expert

If you’re considering the purchase of Bald Head Island real estate, or are a current owner contemplating listing your island property for sale, Bald Head Island Limited Real Estate Sales Executive Doug Oakley, the island’s top agent in 2014, has some advice for clients.

  1. When is the best time to buy on Bald Head?
    Seasonally, business tends to pick up during the warmer months, but realistically that is simply because that’s when the most people are visiting the island. The traditional spring “selling season” in general real estate does hold true for properties on Bald Head as well. Visitors often believe waiting until the rental season is over and owners are faced with the prospect of “carrying” a home through the winter with limited rental income will result in a seller being more negotiable; however, the buyer is overlooking the seasonal rental income he could have retained for his own use had he purchased that same home in the spring. Often this income substantially offsets any potential “end of season” price reductions. Ultimately the best time to buy really depends on each buyer’s personal circumstances.
  2. When is the best time to sell on Bald Head?
    The same guidelines for buying also apply to selling. There truly is no seasonal “best time” to put property on the market. There may be a better time based on market conditions and especially competition. For example, if there are already several Villas on the market, it might not be the best time to put your Villa up for sale. By the same token, if the market inventory of homes in your anticipated value range is relatively low, this could be an excellent time to list your property. While it is true that “activity breeds activity,” sellers generally benefit most when the supply is lower than the demand.
  3. Should I buy or build?
    This is a hard question to answer and the answer really depends on the individual buyer. If the idea of picking out plumbing, tile, flooring, appliances, paint colors, furniture, etc. is going to keep you awake at night, perhaps building isn’t for you. If the thought of not being able to occupy your dream island home for 12-24 months is a deal breaker, buy an existing home. Often in our busy lives people can’t imagine where they will find the time to work with an architect and a builder. In fact, I often see that the owners slow down the process significantly simply by not having time to devote to the building project. On the other hand, if you’re excited about the whole design/build process and you just can’t wait to get involved, go for it! The opportunity of building a home on Bald Head with any of the excellent builders on the island today is a wonderful experience and in reality goes much smoother than you think. The builders are experienced with off-island owners’ needs and concerns.One point to consider, which is generally true in most real estate markets, is that buying an existing home is typically more economical than building. Of course there are likely more compromises with an existing home. A middle ground might be purchasing a “spec” home that is already designed, and simply selecting a the final finishes to personalize it. You can enjoy the benefits of a new home, with an energy efficient design and open floor plan, without the time commitment associated with designing and building a new home. Our new Southern Living Inspired Community at Cape Fear Station offers a great opportunity in this regard.
  4. What’s the best “deal” on the island?
    That’s almost impossible to answer because a deal isn’t a “deal” if you don’t like the home or homesite, is it? In the end you are the one living in the property, so what is a deal to one person may not be to another. In addition, a “deal” can still be rather expensive. A deal on a forest lot certainly isn’t the same as a deal on a beach front family home.
  5. Where should I buy on the island?
    Simple, where YOU enjoy most. Some people will only consider beach front while others only want to be in the maritime forest. As the saying goes, “that’s why they make cars in different colors.” From a value perspective, I can say that view and beach access are typically very desirable features that tend to appreciate more steadily.
  6. How much can I / should I finance and are banks lending?
    Let’s answer the last question first. Yes, banks ARE lending and they are competing for your business. OK, you may have to document things a bit more than in the past, but still, we’re not having problems with banks being willing to loan on Bald Head Island. In general they’ll loan you more than you might need; most are in the 80-90 % loan to value range. I have seen cases where lenders were willing to structure a loan package that would cover 100% of the purchase in fact. We have a number of local lenders who know Bald Head properties and are anxious to help you live the dream.
  7. Can I finance land?
    Absolutely! Bald Head Island Limited Real Estate Sales can connect you with a number of reputable lenders in the area who are willing to finance land purchases.
  8. What’s my property worth today?
    Really this can only be answered by a comprehensive market analysis of your property. It is no secret that property values declined during the real estate downturn, including on Bald Head have. However, real estate in virtually all markets, including Bald Head Island, is on the rebound. Call or email and I would be happy to prepare an updated analysis on your individual property.
  9. What should I do to my home to get it ready to sell?
    I’ll group my answer in three sections:

    • First impressions are critical, better known as curb appeal. Take a hard look at your home and see what a bit of landscaping, cleaning and perhaps fresh paint can do to make a potential buyer WANT to come inside. A little known bit is a typical buyer has already made his/her mind up about your home before they open the front door and spend the rest of the time in the home justifying their predetermination.
    • De-clutter the home. Remove anything not included with the sale if possible and clear off all that island memorabilia from the shelves and table tops. De-cluttering includes the closets and storage areas by the way. You want your home to be as spacious looking as possible.
    • Get a home inspection and address all the items reported. You’re going to have to deal with them anyway, so why not use the home inspection and completed repairs to enhance the value of your home?
  10. Should I get a home inspection prior to listing my home?
    Yes, see above!

I enjoy working with both buyers and sellers. If you have any additional questions about real estate on Bald Head Island, feel free to call me at 800-888-3707 or email me at