Use of Satellite Telemetry Technology to Enhance Research and Education
in the Protection of Loggerhead Sea Turtles

A. Fioravanti-Score, Sarah V. Mitchell (1); J. Michael Williamson (2)
(1) NOAA, Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, Savannah, Georgia
(2) WhaleNet, Boston, Massachusetts


ABSTRACT

Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary (GRNMS) utilizes satellite transmitters to monitor adult and juvenile loggerhead sea turtle behavior and movement in the South Atlantic. Satellite telemetry technology has significantly contributed to the study of the offshore Georgia loggerhead sea turtle population that has been declining in recent years. In a joint effort with WhaleNet, GRNMS has implemented experiences for collaborative learning to foster interdisciplinary education and environmental awareness. WhaleNet establishes Internet communication amongst students, researchers, and educators from around the world for use of GRNMS loggerhead sea turtle satellite data. These efforts enhanc e interest in science and mathematics; and raise awareness for the protection of loggerhead sea turtles and their offshore habitat. Use of research and education, along with advanced satellite telemetry technologies and telecommunications increases loggerhead sea turtle protection awareness, develops an interest in science, and improves skills in problem solving and critical thinking.

BACKGROUND

The threatened loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) is commonly found at GRNMS and nesting along Georgia's barrier islands. The ledges and overhangs of Grayís Reef provide the loggerhead with shelter, a bountiful resource of food, and close proximity to nesting sites on barrier island beaches. Although observations by sanctuary staff have documented the presence of loggerhead sea turtles within the sanctuary year round, little is known about the turtle's daily and seasonal behavior, nor their use of ocean habitats-especially those found off the coast of Georgia. Satellite tagging of loggerheads in Grayís Reef has allowed staff to monitor movement, migration patterns, and spe ed by using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping programs. Researchers hope to learn more about the swimming and resting behaviors, habitat utilization, and genetics of each loggerhead sea turtle tagged.

Gray's Reef has made all itís loggerhead sea turtle spatial data available to WhaleNet for public education and awareness, and can be accessed at http://whale.wheelock.edu/.

WhaleNet, in conjunction with research groups, educational organizations, and whale watch companies, provides a program to enhance the educational opportunities of students. WhaleNet offers students and teachers curriculum resources and support, a source of data for interdisciplinary classroom activities, and interactive informational support thr ough WhaleNet utilizing telecommunications. WhaleNet established Internet communication between researchers and students from around the world so that they can share and use research data, collaborative learning, and personal field experiences to enhance their education and interest in science. WhaleNet provides a system where students, teachers, and researchers collect and then compile their data on the WhaleNet server. The data is then shared, via WhaleNet, with schools for interdisciplinary curricular activities and student research in their respective classrooms worldwide. WhaleNet is an interdisciplinary program to enhance science education and environmental awareness using telecomm unications. WhaleNet is an enhancement project funded by the National Science Foundation, and sponsored by Wheelock College in Boston.

SATELLITE TELEMETRY

The behaviors of organisms that are inaccessible or difficult for humans to follow can be studied with the aid of satellite telemetry.

Satellite telemetry is a satellite-based location and data collection system that allows a transmitter, attached to an animal, to be located to within 350 meters of the transmitted location data. Environmental parameters (i.e. water temperature) collected by sensors attached to the transmitter are also available, thereby providing specific locati on and environmental conditions for a tagged animal over time.

Animals that migrate or spend high percentages of time at ocean depths are especially hard to track. Recent advances in satellite telemetry has minimized this problem, allowing long term tracking of endangered and threatened sea turtles, including the loggerhead.

Historically, heavy cumbersome transmitters have hindered sea turtle tracking. Early transmitters (platform terminal transmitters) were positively buoyant trailing floats that easily became snagged and entangled in seaweed and rocky environments. Recently, smaller backpack transmitters have been developed.

Transmissions are monitored by Service Argos Inc. who provide satellite based data collection service and transmit location class, latitude, longitude, time at depth, date, and time of transmission. The data will allow scientists to 1) help explain movement and dive patterns of loggerhead sea turtles, 2) develop a biological model to increase the predictability of these patterns, and 3) obtain information concerning loggerhead behavior and activity off the coast of Georgia.

OBJECTIVES

Our goal is to use satellite telemetry technologies and telecommunications as a tool for education and promotion in the preservation of loggerhead sea turtles. Through the use of these Gray's Reef and WhaleNet endeavor to raise interest in science, improve skills in problem solving and critical thinking, and increase knowledge of the population d ynamics of loggerhead sea turtles in coastal Georgia.

Grayís Reef National Marine Sanctuary provides the satellite data from all loggerheads tagged and WhaleNet makes the data available worldwide through the Internet. WhaleNet coordinates the Satellite Tagging Observation Program (STOP), which enables students to participate, with scientists, in unique research using advanced technologies.

METHODS

Divers from the Gray's Reef NMS researchers capture each of the study animals from reef areas in the sanctuary. The divers search for loggerheads that rest under rocky ledges. When a turtle is sighted, it is directed into a hand held net by divers, carried to the surface, and lifted onto a boat. Once the turtles are captured, they are weighed, a blood sample is collected, and a satellite transmitter along with an identification tag is attached.

The satellite transmitters are attached to the turtle using a 2-part adhesive placed on the highest part of the animal's shell, called a carapace, which, on a loggerhead, is the second vertebral scale. When the turtle comes to the surface to breathe the transmitter is exposed to air and the data collected while underwater is transmitted via satel lite. The transmitted information provides specific information concerning turtle position, time intervals between surfacing, migration behaviors, day/night swimming patterns, and spatial use. Satellite data from six loggerhead turtles, "Humpty Dumpty", "Randy" "Isabelle", "Annie", "Ariel", and "YOTO", tagged by GRNMS staff can be seen on the WhaleNET server:

http://whale.wheelock.edu/

Satellite tracking lets you locate an animal carrying a transmitter anywhere in the world. Likewise, results can be retrieved anywhere in the world by public data networks, often within 20 minutes of transmission. The satellite receivers are carried on board NOAA polar-orbiting environmental satellites. At least two satellites are simultaneously i n service on sun-synchronous, polar, circular orbits at 850km altitude, providing full global coverage. Tracking results are displayed on microcomputers in the Grayís Reef NMS office and around the world through WhaleNet in near-real time.

GRAY'S REEF NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages Gray's Reef and the other national marine sanctuaries to protect their natural resources. Grayís Reef is one of the largest near shore live-bottom reefs off the southeastern United States. The reef is a submerged hard bottom area composed of calcareous sandstone that provides ext ensive but discontinuous vertical relief. Rising out of a flat sandy sea bottom, the rock outcroppings are 2 to 3 meters in height with flat-bottomed troughs between. The series of rock ledges and sand expanses has produced a complex habitat of caves, burrows, troughs, and overhangs that provide a solid base for the abundant sessile invertebrate s to attach and grow. This rocky platform with its carpet of attached organisms is known locally as a "live bottom habitat." This topography supports an unusual assemblage of temperate and tropical marine flora and fauna. Algae and invertebrates grow on the exposed rock surfaces: dominant invertebrates include sponges, barnacles, sea fans, hard c oral, sea stars, crabs, lobsters, snails, and shrimp.

These conditions create an ideal habitat for the threatened loggerhead sea turtle. The ledges and overhangs of the reef provide the loggerhead sea turtle with protected resting spots, a bountiful resource of food, and close proximity to nesting sites on barrier island beaches. A management plan is developed for each sanctuary to encourage compati ble public uses, and to promote scientific understanding and public awareness of the marine environment. The Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary recognizes the importance of long term monitoring to understand and recognize the health and status of the significant resources, including loggerhead sea turtles found in the sanctuary. Long term mon itoring of resources also applies to management concerns of other state and federal agencies as Gray's Reef is one of the largest natural live-bottom reefs in the South Atlantic Bight and serves as a good indicator of overall live bottom health in this region.

More information on Gray's Reef can be accessed at:

http://www.graysreef.nos.noaa.gov

WHALENET

WhaleNet coordinates the Satellite Tagging Observation Program - STOP. The goal is to enable students to participate, with scientists, in unique research using advanced technologies.

This unique program uses advanced satellite technology and telecommunications to monitor and research the actual migration patterns and movements of selected species of whales and marine animals. Students and educators work in conjunction with international research organizations such as the; New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts; the Nat ional Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland; the Mingan Island Cetacean Study in Longue Pointe de Mingan, Quebec; the Duke University Marine Lab, in Beaufort, North Carolina; the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, in Savannah, Georgia; and Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Students and educators can access and use the data and information from these satellite tags through WhaleNet. WhaleNet makes available information from as many as 12 satellite tags each year and can be accessed at http://whale.wheelock.edu.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Scott Kraus
New England Aquarium

Mike Harris, Bradd Winn, and Adam Mackinnon
GA Department of Natural Resources

Kris Williams
Caretta Research Project

Dave Nelson
US Army Corps of Engineers

John Robinette and Michael Johnson
US Fish and Wildlife Service