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Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter launches new satellite tracking research program

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Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter launches new satellite tracking research program
13Apr 2012

“Tag and Track” release program takes off with Jerry

Embarking on a new research and conservation initiative the Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter has introduced a new element to their already famous release program.   “Tag and Track” sponsorship packages are now available to corporate, individual and academic sponsors.  

With the ability to fit released Green Sea Turtles with satellite transmitters the crew can both release Centre-reared wildlife to the ocean and, monitor the released turtles.  When the animal surfaces during a transmission period, the tag sends a signal to a satellite, indicating its location.

On February 19th, the Centre released the first satellite-tagged second-generation, captive bred juvenile Green Sea Turtle.  Affectionately named Jerry by his sponsors, this history making turtle was released at a private event in East End amongst the sponsor's family, friends and crew. Jerry was sponsored by Cory Strander and family, who own a vacation home on Queen’s Highway.  

“Mr. Strander lives in Louisiana and runs several different businesses.  It was through a business relationship that he became aware of the new sponsorship opportunity and we were delighted to have our first “Tag and Track” sponsor,” explains Mr. Adam, Managing Director of Cayman Turtle Centre.

As Jerry travels, the team at the Centre has been able to use the data as signs that he (or she - as the turtle is too young for gender to be confirmed externally) has successfully survived the introduction to the wild, and scientists, both at the Centre and in like-minded organizations around the world, can view and assess the turtle's migration path.

“Jerry’s transmission on Sunday afternoon April 15 showed that the turtle was approximately sixteen miles south of the cays near Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), Cuba, and heading north," states Mr. Adam.  

“After having stayed close to shore around Grand Cayman apparently feeding comfortably and spending most of the time in the North Sound for the first few weeks, it seems Jerry was getting ready for a long journey”, he continued.

“We encourage everyone to become actively involved in this adventure with us.  Jerry can be followed online at the seaturtle.org link shown on our webpage www.turtle.ky/current-project.”

Mr. Adam continued, “This is an exciting time for us.  Today scientists believe that sea turtles play many important ecological roles in the environment.  For example, Green Sea turtles are thought to help maintain the health of the sea grass beds from which they feed, and healthy sea grass beds are important to the overall marine environment such as coral shoals, sand bars, reefs and beaches."

"There is still much to be discovered and we are continuing to play a part in solving these mysteries.”

"Just as important for us in Cayman especially is the cultural significance of the Green Sea Turtle – in helping them we help keep alive our very own heritage.  Of course, we cannot do this alone and all tracked turtle releases need the support of sponsors from the community and we look forward to that continued support with Jerry being just the first of several.”

Satellite tracking and monitoring, or 'satellite telemetry', is a process where a tracking device called a Position Tracking Terminal (or PTT) is attached to a sea turtle's carapace (shell). The PTT sends signals to a satellite when the turtle comes to the surface during pre-set transmission time "windows".  These signals are messages to scientists via the satellite regarding the location of the turtle, and other data such as maximum dive duration and percentage of time spent underwater.  The positions are then plotted onto a map. The devices are designed to cause as little disruption to the swimming sea turtle as possible, and to keep transmitting for months.

Currently around the world thousands of satellite transmitters are in use covering a broad range of projects ranging from monitoring ocean circulation, polar currents, and natural hazards, to movements of wildlife which includes turtles, other species of marine animals such as whales and sharks, various land animals, and now even birds.

“The Department of the Environment has previously attached satellite tags to a few adult turtles that had returned to nest on our beaches.  Traditional tagging studies (using “living tags”) have shown that juveniles released from the Centre decades ago are now returning to nest on Cayman beaches.  It is exciting to now be able to employ this satellite tracking method on our second generation captive-bred juvenile turtles from the time they are first released into the wild.  Using satellite telemetry we can begin to answer questions like:  Is there a pattern to the juvenile turtle's movements and migration? Do they stay around known food sources?  How are their movements related to ocean currents? How fast do they move?  How much time do they spend submerged in shallow or deep water? Where are they during those “lost years”? Do they migrate to the coastlines of other countries? These are some of the many questions that satellite tracking studies can help answer.  If the transmitter is fitted properly and securely it can yield up to a year’s worth of useful information via satellite,” says Dr. Walter Mustin, Chief Research Officer at the Cayman Turtle Centre.

“We invite other corporate and individual sponsors to get involved in this project as it is the collective data from many released juvenile turtles that will lead to greater insights about the species and it is the shared information that will help guide conservation management, future releases and replenishment plans. It also proves beneficial in being able to prepare for future crisis events such as oil spills or global warming and rising ocean levels,” added Dr. Mustin.

Because sea turtles are migratory, there are many thousands of unknown miles between where they feed and live and the places where they breed and lay their eggs. There are also a few years in the lives of hatchlings and juveniles in the wild about which surprisingly little is known for sure.  Green Sea Turtles, along with 5 other species of sea turtles, are listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  It is believed that many populations are still declining all around the world bringing to the forefront the importance of protecting these animals.  Obtaining more information on the behaviors and migrations of juvenile sea turtles will provide invaluable information to help save them in the future.

For more information on costs and details of the “Tag and Track” sponsorship packages interested parties should email sponsorship@turtle.ky.