Tour de Turtles Research Increasing Knowledge and Awareness About Sea Turtles

Issue 1, 2013

Tour de Turtles Research Increasing Knowledge and Awareness About Sea Turtles

By Dan Evans

Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Tour de Turtles (TdT) is a popular online educational program built upon the pioneering tracking program begun in 1996. More than 16,000 teachers around the world have registered to use STC’s online satellite tracking program as part of their curriculum, representing more than half a million students. Developed in 2008, TdT generates considerable public interest in sea turtles. During 2012’s three-month program, more than 30,000 individual visitors were inspired to log onto the website and follow the turtles being tracked.

Each year, TdT tracks sea turtles as they race to complete a turtle “marathon,” migrating from their nesting beaches to unknown foraging grounds. The winner of the Tour de Turtles is the turtle that swims the furthest distance during the three months of the race.

The turtles being tracked depart from some of the most important nesting sites in the Western Hemisphere. An animated character is created for each sea turtle being tracked and their migration is plotted on a map posted on the TdT website. Using the Google Maps format, the turtle maps are updated daily with new locations. This makes the maps dynamic, allowing viewers to zoom in or out, move the map around, and select from several different backgrounds.

When possible, STC conducts public events to allow people to see turtles up close as they start their migrations. These public events generate a lot of awareness and interest. The online TdT program provides a way to keep people interested in sea turtles after the excitement of the release, while providing important information about sea turtles.

TdT also includes information about the threats to sea turtle survival. Some of the threats specifically relate to certain sea turtle species, while others are representative of threats to marine and coastal ecosystems used by sea turtles. For example, one recent turtle participant helped raise awareness about the problem of marine debris, while another focused attention on the problem of artificial lights on nesting beaches.

Many teachers using the TdT program return year after year with new classes of students. They follow along as new discoveries are made and become inspired when an event like the Gulf oil spill impacts sea turtles. TdT also provides students and teachers with data and tools they can use to conduct their own related research.

The key to TdT is that it combines data from STC’s various scientific migration-tracking research projects in a fun and interesting way, inviting the general public and classrooms to discover the incredible world of sea turtles by monitoring their movements in near real-time.

Research conducted through TdT has shown leatherbacks from Costa Rica and Panama using new migratory pathways when leaving the Caribbean Sea and new feeding areas in the Gulf of Mexico. Satellite tracking green turtles from our project in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, has documented migrations as far as the Yucatan Peninsula, further than any previous migrations tracked via satellite from Tortuguero. And the tracking research on loggerheads from Florida has led to the discovery of a northern migration corridor for loggerheads that nest at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Previous tracking had shown primarily southern migrations.

STC’s tracking of hawksbills from the eastern Caribbean has shown that hawksbill turtles can migrate long distances to waters off of Central America, migratory movements that were previously unknown for hawksbill turtles. These new discoveries are shared through TdT as they are happening, creating a connection between the audience and sea turtles, while increasing awareness about humanrelated threats and fostering public stewardship for endangered sea turtles.