Satellites track endangered sea turtles

Devices will help researchers determine extent of damage from oil spill

SAN ANTONIO - It's been more than two years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and released millions of barrels of oil. The effects of the spill on marine life are still widely unknown.

Researchers at the Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi are hoping satellite tracking devices attached to the endangered Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles that nest on Texas beaches will give them a better idea of the spill's impact on the turtles.

Every spring and summer, hundreds of female Kemp's Ridley turtles return to beaches in South Texas to lay their eggs.

During the 45 minute birthing process, volunteers take measurements and samples.

"Once the turtle is laying eggs, she is in a trance-like state and she is oblivious to what's going on around her," said Dr. Donna Shaver of the Padre Island National Seashore Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Division.

Each year, a handful of females are transported from the nesting area and taken back to the sea turtle lab, where a satellite tracking device is attached to their shell. The device will allow researches like Dr. Shaver to see where they go after nesting and what hazards they may encounter in the open waters of the Gulf.

"We are doing this work to gather information to aid with our natural resource damage assessment study, which is looking at potential injury to nesting Kemp's Ridleys as well as their offspring from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill," Shaver said.

The satellite transmitters are attached to the turtle's shells with a fast drying epoxy and painted to prevent barnacle buildup. It's a time consuming process but necessary to ensure the survival of the endangered species.

"It's important to know where these turtles go in between the nesting season so we know what waters are very important for protection of these animals," Shaver said.

With the transmitter in place, the turtle is released back into the Gulf.

The turtles mainly nest near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, but their full nesting and feeding range includes most of the Gulf of Mexico, including the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. With the transmitter and blood test data that is collected, the females will help answer questions about possible spill effects and help guide restoration needed to continue the recovery of a struggling species.

"It is still an endangered species greatly depleted compared to former numbers and if we are going to recover this species," Shaver said. "We need to be able to protect them in the area where they spend most of their lives."

If you'd like to track the movements of the satellite tagged turtles, just go to www.seaturtle.org, and click on the Padre Island National Seashore Kemp's Ridley tracking program.


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