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Sea turtles followed to learn how to protect endangered species

Sea turtles are being followed by marine biologists to learn how to protect the threatened and endangered species. The sea turtles are tagged with a satellite transmitter and other tracking devices.

By Brett IsraelOurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer / June 22, 2010

Sea turtles are followed by Marine biologists to learn how to protect the threatened and endangered species

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Although he doesn't know it, a green turtle named "Bond" is bringing scientists along on his hidden travels in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Last August, Bond was tagged with a satellite transmitter and other tracking devices. Now that he's back in the waters around Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles (113 kilometers) west of Key West, Fla., he's updating scientists by the day on his whereabouts. Marine biologists are following Bond and 27 other tagged sea turtles to learn how to protect these threatened and endangered species.

The sea turtles — green turtles, loggerheads and hawksbills — may spend the majority of their lives away from the federally-protected beaches of Dry Tortugas and away from the eyes of scientists. Tracking the turtles will reveal where they spend their days so that habitat managers can protect these areas.

IN PICTURES: Sea turtles

"When they're on land we only get such a brief period with them, and then we don't get to see them for the rest of their lives," said research ecologist Kristen Hart of the U.S. Geological Survey. Hart said she and her colleagues are watching the sea turtles as if they were following their own children.

Rodeo-tagging

Following the turtles requires tagging them with monitors, but attaching a tag to a sea turtle is harder than it sounds. One page from the researchers' playbook is called the "rodeo-capture."

Aboard the 22-foot- (7-meter-) long whaler boat Caretta caretta (the loggerhead's Latin name), researchers lean over the ship's edge, holding only a post for balance, and scout for turtles.

"You have to have your eyes on the water at all times," Hart said.

The ship will coast alongside the left side of a turtle, which may be swimming at 5 mph (8 kph). When the turtle comes up for air, two divers decked out in snorkels and gloves plunge into the water. They grab the turtle and point the head skyward.

Two of the stronger scientists on the boat then lift the turtle, which can weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kilograms), onto a foam pad on the boat's deck. The research team then takes measurements and blood samples, affixes tags and sends the creatures back on their way. [See how the scientists tag the turtles.]

To track it, a $1,350-dollar satellite transmitter is glued to the turtle's shell. The tags are no more than 5 percent of a turtle's body weight, so they don't know they are there.