Satellite-tracked Turtles Survive Hurricane Isabel

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
September 25, 2003

Shellby had been reported missing, presumed dead, after Hurricane Isabel struck the eastern U.S. coast last week. Feared washed up or drowned, she is one of 11 female sea turtles being tracked by researchers keen to discover where they go after laying their eggs on land.

But Shellby, a loggerhead turtle, survived the storm. Having been fitted with a satellite transmitter while on Bald Head Island in North Carolina, her signals have since been picked up again near Virginia Beach.

The story of Shellby's voyage, plus those of ten other tagged turtles, have captivated a worldwide audience, with Internet users able to chart their daily progress towards far-off feeding grounds by logging on to Seaturtle.org.

The nonprofit organization provides instant access to pioneering research into sea turtle migrations in the Caribbean and western Atlantic. Based in the U.S., Seaturtle.org is run by various groups dedicated to conserving these endangered marine reptiles. They include UK scientists who are tracking 11 green and loggerhead turtles using the latest satellite technology.

Brendan Godley, a marine biologist with the Marine Turtle Research Group based in Exeter, England, says the project has two main aims: to find out where the animals live when they are not breeding, and to understand why and how they migrate over vast distances.

He added: "If we don't know where these animals go, how can we conserve them? But if we can find out, then a mosaic of protected areas can be created to encompass a large part of their lifecycle.

"We also want to know what drives their migration patterns. For instance, as the seas get colder in winter, are they going to hit the bottom and undertake a type of hibernation, as they do in the Mediterranean, or will they head south?"

Egg-laying

The turtles had satellite transmitters fitted to their shells this summer while laying eggs on beaches in North Carolina, South Carolina, and the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean.

The four North Carolina turtles headed north, straight into the path of Hurricane Isabel, which recently brought chaos and devastation to the eastern seaboard. Researchers feared the worst, especially when one of them, named Shellby, stopped sending signals.

But Matthew Godfrey, biologist for the North Carolina Sea Turtle Project, says all four turtles are now transmitting again, adding: "One thing to keep in mind is that increased wave action and higher swells associated with storms can result in fewer transmissions." This is because the transmitters switch on only when fully exposed as the turtles come up for air.

Godfrey suspects adult turtles are good at dealing with violent seas, but says a bigger problem associated with the hurricane came from heightened sea levels and crashing waves which destroyed many thousands of unhatched eggs.

Continued on Next Page >>


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