Space-Age Technology Helps Protect Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles

Date: June 12, 2003
Contact: Dan Evans
Phone: (325) 373-6441

View the migration map for FLORA and CHICA TICA, the two leatherbacks satellite tagged by CCC. Additional project details.

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA – During June 5-9, 2003, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC), with support from its partners at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (H-SWRI), attached satellite transmitters to the backs of “critically endangered” leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) after they nested on the Caribbean beaches of Tortuguero, Costa Rica. The study will reveal important information about the turtles’ migratory behavior, which will help both conservationists and natural resource managers to improve protection efforts for this endangered species. Migration data collected over the next year will be posted on maps available for free to the public on CCC’s website. CCC, based in Gainesville, Fla., owns and operates a four-decades-long sea turtle research Program on the remote beaches of Tortuguero, Costa Rica.

Since the mid-1950s, CCC has been conducting annual green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) research and protection efforts at Tortuguero, making it one of the longest running conservation Programs in history. In the mid 1990s, aware of the ongoing dramatic decline of Pacific leatherback sea turtle nesting populations and of the many threats to leatherback turtles worldwide, CCC initiated a leatherback monitoring and protection Program at it’s Tortuguero research station. CCC researchers have since learned that the leatherback nesting aggregations along the Costa Rican and northern Panama coasts may represent the third or fourth largest nesting population in the world and the largest along the Caribbean coast. Currently, very little is known about where these highly migratory turtles go once they leave their nesting beaches. However, this year cutting-edge satellite technology will be used to gather live data on migratory routes and behavior. This information should prove to be invaluable in future efforts at developing international conservation strategies to protect this unique species.

CCC researchers will attach small satellite transmitters to the turtles before they return to the water. A signal will be sent from the transmitter on the turtle’s backs to orbiting satellites each time the turtles surface to breath. The data will be collected and downloaded to CCC and Hubb’s researchers. As soon as the raw data is interpreted, the location information will be used to update detailed Internet maps showing the turtles’ movements and locations. This will allow interested persons all over the world to watch along as researchers discover where the giant leatherback turtles of Tortuguero travel after they leave their nesting beach in Costa Rica.

“This state-of-the-art technology will help us learn more about a species that has existed for at least 150 million years, and because of man, is now on the edge of extinction in many areas of the world,” said David Godfrey, CCC Executive Director. “Because of the dramatic decline of nesting leatherbacks worldwide, our leatherback research and conservation efforts in Costa Rica are becoming increasingly important. Information collected through this study will help us and others develop conservation strategies to ensure their survival through the next millennium.”

Background information on the Caribbean Conservation Corporation: The Caribbean Conservation Corporation, based in Gainesville, Florida, (CCC) is the oldest sea turtle research and conservation group in the world. Founded by legendary sea turtle expert Dr. Archie Carr and others in 1959, CCC has been conducting research on the sea turtles of Tortuguero for over 40 years. Tortuguero’s globally important nesting beach has become an important tourist attraction in Costa Rica, and each year thousands of tourists come to Tortuguero to see nesting sea turtles. Caribbean Conservation Corporation’s John H. Phipps Biological Field Station at Tortuguero serves as a base of operation for CCC’s ongoing sea turtle studies, volunteer Programs and community outreach. In Florida, CCC led the successful campaign to establish the Florida Sea Turtle Specialty License Plate, which now provides a steady source of funding for the state’s Marine Turtle Protection Program.

Through the CCC’s Internet-based Sea Turtle Migration-Tracking Education Program, anyone with Internet access can follow the migratory wanderings of the Tortuguero leatherbacks, as well as many other Florida tagged turtles, from their homes. The education Program is designed to teach people, and especially children, about sea turtles and the threats to their survival by following the movements of these giant creatures as they migrate from tropical nesting beaches to feeding grounds located hundreds or thousands of miles away. Though popular with the general public, the Program is also designed for use in a classroom setting. Teachers are invited to register on-line to receive CCC’s free Educator’s Guide, which includes useful background information, student worksheets and classroom activities. For more information, visit the CCC website at

Background information on Hubbs: A nonprofit research foundation, Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (H-SWRI) is located on Mission Bay in San Diego, CA. A scientific staff of 25 occupies the laboratories, offices and conference rooms, where visiting scientists and research associates from around the world work with Institute personnel. The 30,000-square-foot facility is shared with San Diego State University. The nonprofit H-SWRI began as the Mission Bay Research Foundation in June 1963, established by the founders of Sea World to “..return to the sea some measure of the benefits derived from it.”

With a recent gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation of 5 acres on the Indian River, H-SWRI has initiated a capital campaign to establish a field station for Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Florida. Just 3 miles from the Sebastian Inlet, on Florida’s east coast, H-SWRI will build and staff a new Conservation Research Center.

Photos to go with this story are available online