On the Right Track

Summer 1999 Issue Articles:

* On the Right Track

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On the Right Track

By Dan Evans, Education Coordinator

Sea Turtle Survival League staff, federal and state researchers, and the press watch the progress of a female loggerhead sea turtle being released from the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge with a satellite transmitter attached to her shell.

The Sea Turtle Survival League (STSL) began the ourth year of its successful Sea Turtle Migration-Tracking Education Program by teaming up with researchers in Mexico, Florida and Bermuda. The high-tech education program allows Internet surfers around the world to track the mysterious migrations of sea turtles being monitored by satellite. Through the program, people around the world can learn about the plight of endangered marine turtles by following the movements of sea turtles as they migrate from tropical nesting beaches to feeding grounds located hundreds or thousands of miles away.

In August, researchers with the STSL, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attached satellite transmitters to the backs of five loggerhead turtles after they finished nesting on beaches within the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge near Melbourne, Florida. In addition, several loggerheads are being followed off the gulf coast of Florida.

On the evening of August 19, researchers and STSL staff were on the beach searching the northern segment of the Carr Refuge for nesting loggerhead turtles. Of the three turtles encountered during the evening, two were selected to be held for satellite transmitter attachment. The first was encountered at 10 p.m. and the second at 3 a.m. on the morning of August 20. Reseachers worked to attach a transmitter to the first turtle during the night and then moved to the second turtle as the sun began to rise over the Atlantic.

The process of the transmitter attachment and release of the loggerhead made a great news story for several TV station crews and newspaper reporters. The press began arriving at first light and stayed until the turtle safely returned to the sea. TV stations that were represented included WESH Channel 2 (NBC Affiliate), WFTV Channel 9 (ABC Affiliate), Central Florida News Channel 13 (CNN Affiliate) and FOX 35. The story was also covered in newspapers such as the Vero Beach Press Journal, Florida Today and the Gainesville Sun.

The satellite transmitter, with contact information, is attached with several layers of fiberglass strips and resin.

The process of attaching a satellite transmitter takes about three hours. The transmitter is first attached with a non-toxic adhesive to place and level the transmitter on the shell of the turtle. Once that has dried, strips of fiberglass are applied with a resin that is allowed to dry before the next layer is applied. This is the same process and materials that are used to repair surfboards and canoes. Three layers are applied and allowed to dry. Some extra material is placed to help protect the antenna from breaking off, which is a common problem as a result of the turtles wedging themselves under rock and coral shelves. Contact information on the transmitter helps increase the chance of recovery after it falls off the turtle.

The sea turtles that nest in the United States primarily deposit their eggs along the southeast coast, especially in Florida, but they regularly travel in waters all along the east coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Researchers have studied the U.S. population of loggerheads for years, but it is still a mystery where they spend a majority of their lives. Where will the turtles being tracked this year eventually travel? Through the use of satellite telemetry, researchers hope to answer that question in order to better protect the turtles throughout their range.

If you have been following previously tracked turtles on the STSL web page, then you might recognize the following names: Rhonda and Endora. These two green sea turtles were part of a 1997 study looking at the migration movements of Florida green turtles conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. If you adopted either of these turtles a couple of years ago, then we have some good news; both turtles were encountered nesting this summer in the Archie Carr Refuge!

STSL is also involved with researchers who are using satellite technology to follow the migrations of green turtles from Bermuda developmental habitat to distant adult feeding grounds. The research is part of the Bermuda Turtle Project and is an effort to learn more about the movements of green turtles away from Bermuda and into the next phase of their life cycle. The green turtles that live in Bermuda waters arrive after hatching on distant nesting beaches and living at sea, probably for several years. After growing up on the Bermuda grass flats here, these same turtles depart for foreign feeding grounds where they mature. It seems clear from tag returns that the Caribbean is the next destination for green turtles that grow up in Bermuda waters.

Last year a green turtle named Bermudiana was followed as she traveled in a near straight line, covering the distance between Bermuda and the Dominican Republic, about 1,500 km, in one month! Regularly updated maps depicting the movements of the latest turtles tagged in Bermuda can also be viewed for free on the STSL web page. The tracking project is being partially funded by the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) and is part of a collaborative research project of the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, the Bermuda Division of Fisheries and CCC. Drs. Anne and Peter Meylan coordinate the research on behalf of CCC.

Once the resin layers have dried and the transmitter is securely attached, the box is lifted and the turtle is released to begin her long migration.

In addition to extensive background information and photos of sea turtles, the STSL web site includes maps depicting the most recent migratory movements of nearly a dozen turtles being tracked around the southeast U.S., Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists involved in the studies offer regular reports, and an on-line bulletin board allows visitors to the web site to submit questions to participating researchers. For teachers wanting to incorporate the program into their classroom curriculum, the STSL offers a free 40-page Educator’s Guide, which will be mailed to those requesting a copy. The STSL also encourages people to “adopt” one of the satellite-tagged sea turtles with a $25 donation. All money raised goes to support CCC’s sea turtle conservation efforts.

Through the Sea Turtle Migration-Tracking Education Program, researchers and STSL hope people take a greater interest in the plight of threatened and endangered sea turtles. For more information about this free program or to adopt a satellite-tagged turtle, call the STSL at (800) 678-7853 or e-mail us atstc@conserveturtles.org