Topsail Island's name is supposedly derived from its nefarious history, however, this is still debatable among the locals on the Island. According to popular belief, pirates used to hide in the channel between the island and the mainland waiting for merchant ships loaded with goods to pass. The pirates would attack the ships and claim the cargo as their own. Eventually the merchants became aware of the hiding place and began looking for the topsail, which was supposedly the only part of the pirate ship that could be seen by the passing victim. There is a legend that Blackbeard hid his treasure on Topsail Island and that prior to WWII, treasure hunters searched for the hidden gems and gold throughout the islands' maritime forests.
Sea turtle populations are rapidly decreasing due to the increasing populations of humans and rapid degradation of habitats. Recently, efforts have been made to increase these populations by focusing on one main stage of life, the egg site. These such sites can be found along the coastlines of beaches up into the sand dunes. There are four main species that can be found on and around the island which are loggerhead, green, leatherback and Ridleys Sea Turtle. One species specifically that has been the main theme of protection is the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. This turtle has been the basis for the stationing of the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Topsail Island, North Carolina. Their mission is the protection and watching over of the 26 mile stretch of beach that is Topsail Island. They are committed to the overseeing of hatching of the eggs, caring for sick and injured turtles and protection over the egg site
Not only do humans have an impact on the nesting sites of sea turtles, hurricanes play a large role in this as well. Extreme weather will result in the alteration of the nesting site in a negative way by ruining nesting quality through sand erosion. This will cause the turtles to not chose an area that may normally be a safe choice. Also, a hurricane could drown potential eggs reducing the population of the specific turtle that laid the eggs. Occasionally the number of offspring affected will be negligible due to the actual number of eggs being laid at the time of the storm. All five species of sea turtles are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and are under joint jurisdiction under the NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Loggerhead Sea Turtles or known by their scientific name as Caretta caretta rely heavily of a range of environmental cues in order to lay their eggs. These turtles will also only lay their eggs during the night, crawling all the way up to the dunes and occasionally laying none at all, which is referred to as a "false crawl." These times of nesting would often range from mid-May to August when the eggs would then hatch. During the nesting season the turtle will come to nest 3–5 times and will deposit an average of about 120 eggs per nest. These eggs will then incubate in the nest for about 60 days. Upon hatching they will race to the ocean avoiding ghost crabs and birds which will attempt to eat them.
During the first five years of the loggerheads life it travels to the west coast of Africa where it lives in the pelagic environment. Also, about 100 species of plants and animals have been recorded as living on the back of these turtles making them an ecosystem in themselves. Lastly, it takes approximately 25–30 years for a loggerhead turtle to mature and be able to reproduce.
This project began only due to the turtles choice of nesting on this island. For hundreds of years even before Topsail Island received its name turtles were laying their eggs on the dunes. The mission began as a few volunteers but has blossomed into quite the operation now. Originally founded by Karen Beasley her dream was reached and included tasks provided by volunteers such as walking the beaches at night staking out the nesting sites and overseeing the hatching of the eggs. Only after Karens death in 1991 did her mother Jean Beasley take over and she still remains at the helm today.
At the end of World War II the Navy began a joint venture with Johns Hopkins University and established the US Naval Ordnance Test Facilities at Topsail Island, North Carolina, for Operation Bumblebee, a top-secret, experimental project to develop and test ramjet missiles, which advanced the Nation's jet aircraft and missile programs. So successful were the tests conducted at the Topsail Island site that the ramjet proved its value, opened the way for the advance of supersonic jet aircraft design and brought the United States to the threshold of modern space technology with the Talos, Terrier, Tartar and Sea Sparrow missiles aboard naval vessels. The name 'Bumblebee' was chosen, possibly due to the misconception that it is aerodynamically unable to fly, but does not know this and flies anyway. This operation lead to the maturing of supersonic aircraft and shipboard missile design in the mid-20th century.
Topsail Island was the third of three widespread test sites established along the Atlantic seaboard in the closing years of World War II, and the first permanent ground for missile testing. The Topsail Island site, placed in operation in March 1947, incorporated rigid structures that were designed and built for specific uses related to the assembly, firing, monitoring and perfecting of experimental ramjet missiles. The buildings associated with this testing, the Assembly Building, Facility Control Tower and Observation Tower No. 2 possess exceptional importance because they are the only aboveground resources remaining at these three sites where the Nation's burgeoning ramjet missile program grew from experimentation to maturity. The Assembly Building is a one-and-a-half-story masonry building and the Control Tower is a three-story reinforced concrete building. Observation Tower #2 is an unaltered example of the eight instrument towers erected on Topsail Island. Towers #1, #4, #5, and #7 were converted into houses. Tower #3 was also converted into a house, but the addition was destroyed by Hurricane Fran in 1996. Tower #6 was converted into a restaurant and fishing pier, but the pier was also destroyed by Fran, and the addition was demolished later. Tower #8 is the only tower that no longer stands, having been demolished in 1989.
Naval and Marine personnel, numbering 500 men, and led by Lieutenant Commander Tad Stanwick, arrived at the site by mid-1946 to begin installation of the facilities needed for the testing. During the next 18 months, an estimated 200 experimental rockets, each measuring six inches in diameter and between three and 13 feet in length, were fabricated at the Assembly Building, dispatched to the launch site, and fired along a northeasterly angular deflection of 15 degrees to the shoreline for a maximum clear distance of 40 miles. Despite the initial success of the US Naval Ordnance Testing facility at Topsail Island over its 18-month span, its location did not fulfill completely the needs of a permanent base because weather conditions and increased sea traffic interfered with testing, and the facility was abandoned and its equipment moved to other sites.