Divers play tag to save turtles

Posted May 10, 2013, at 1:20 p.m.

MIAMI — The 10 scuba divers who plunged to a reef about 70 feet deep off Jupiter, Fla., had a mission: try to find a hawksbill sea turtle for marine scientist Larry Wood to tag.

The first dive from captain Jared Slater’s dive boat Kyalami earlier that day was “no joy.” But 10 minutes into the second dive, Enrique Jaramillo located the target moseying along a colorful coral ledge.

Without hesitation, field technician Nikole Ordway grabbed the animal by the front and back of its shell and began swimming with it to the surface. But the struggling turtle wanted to take Ordway up a lot quicker than she wanted to go from the ocean depths, so Jaramillo and Wood held it by the torso, slowing its ascent.

Once on the surface, Ordway handed the test subject to Kyalami divemaster Maggie Whalen, who set it on the deck. Wood and Ordway clambered up the dive ladder, shucked their tanks, and got to work.

“This one was a fighter,” said Wood, conservation biologist at the Palm Beach Zoo who is working on his doctoral degree in marine biology at Florida Atlantic University. “One nice thing about their being feisty underwater is they are tired on top.”

Wood and Ordway measured the turtle, estimated its age at about 15, but were unable to determine sex because it was not yet mature. They attached a stainless steel tag with identification numbers to each flipper and implanted a microchip similar to those used by veterinarians on cats and dogs, in the muscle of one flipper. The whole process took about 10 minutes, with the turtle offering only token resistance.

The rest of the dive party returned to the boat when the researchers were almost finished and dubbed the turtle “Ky” — a shortened version of the boat’s name. Slater returned the boat to the catch site, and Wood placed the animal back into the water. It swam away quickly.

“Bye, Ky!” the divers called.

Slater and his customers and crew enjoyed a rare privilege that April day — getting to help with field research conducted on an endangered species.

Handling, harassing or molesting a sea turtle is strictly forbidden under federal and state law, with heavy fines imposed for violators. But Wood’s Comprehensive Florida Hawksbill Research and Conservation Program, underway since 2004, holds special permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In the last eight years, Wood said, he and colleagues have tagged 171 hawksbill sea turtles off Palm Beach. Five have been fitted with GPS-linked satellite transmitters mounted on their carapaces, or shells. His findings so far are intriguing.

While hawksbills frequent the reefs off Palm Beach County, they do not nest on the beaches there — or anywhere else in Florida, Wood said. The other three sea turtle species found swimming off the southeast Florida coast — the loggerhead, green and leatherback — all lay eggs on local beaches.

Wood says about 80 percent of hawksbills found here were born on the beaches of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula; the rest originated elsewhere in the Caribbean. Since sea turtles return to their birthplaces somewhere around the age of 30 to lay eggs, Wood wanted to know what the hawksbills doing here.

“It’s developmental habitat,” Wood said. “How they found this place, I don’t know. This is where they grow up. They find a place and hang out there till they feel like laying eggs.”

Wood says hawksbills — distinctive for their hawk-like beaks, pointy scutes and carapace plates overlaid like roof shingles — might spend 10 to 15 years here and at other developmental habitats in tropical seas around the world before returning to their home beaches.

“Why are these reefs attractive to them? It’s important because you want to protect an animal in all its habitat,” Wood said. “In order to understand and protect and manage a species, you have to know where they live.”

Wood said he hopes divers who spot a tagged hawksbill will take time to note the tag number — if they can do it without bothering the turtle.

“If you can read the number, wonderful,” he said. “You could post on Facebook the dive location, date and photo of the tag number.”

The scientist’s research has attracted a flock of layman scuba divers who enjoy accompanying him on his tagging expeditions.

“I like to dive,” said Jaramillo, a medical equipment salesman. “I think everybody should be involved with ecology and trying to take care of our oceans.”

Slater said hosting Wood on his dive boat is good for business — and the environment.

“Everybody loves turtles,” Slater said. “We like participating in this program. Anything we can give back to our backyard, we want to do.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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