A biologist’s recap on deploying a satellite transmitter on a sea turtle
In 1995, the Conservancy’s sea turtle biologists first encountered Doodler, a loggerhead sea turtle. Her carapace (shell) measured approximately 39 inches from notch to tip (lengthwise) and was about 28.5 inches wide.
Sea turtles typically start nesting when they are smaller and get larger as they age. Doodler’s large size is indicative that she had been a nesting mama for many years prior to our encounter in 1995. Although typically Keewaydin sea turtles nest every three years or so, Doodler is an over achiever and has nested on the Island every 2 years since 1995. Additionally, during each of the years she graced us with her presence she nested an average of 3–4 times each year.
In 2007, we were interested in discovering where these sea turtles go once they have nested and return to the Gulf, so the Conservancy shortly thereafter began a satellite tagging program to find out. Doodler was first satellite tagged in 2011, a tag that was a gift from the Allyn family. Dawn and her husband Lew are long-time supporters of the Conservancy and the Conservancy’s sea turtle program. The origin of Doodler’s name came from Dawn’s family nickname since she had a propensity to doodle while talking on the phone. Doodler received her second tag in 2015.
Hobbit, another loggerhead sea turtle, was first encountered in 2013, the year she received her first satellite tag. She was named by two of our interns at the time, Taryn and Laurie. This loggerhead sea turtle was smaller than our usual nesters. Her carapace measured ~31 inches from notch to tip and ~24 inches in width, so our interns decided she looked like the sea turtle version of a hobbit. In reality, she was likely just a young first time nester in comparison to her older and much larger cousins. Hobbit has only been seen on Keewaydin in 2013, 2017, and 2021, however she could have nested on other years and we just were not in the right place at the right time to observe her.
Prior to the 2021 nesting season, we were contacted by Simona Ceriani, who is a research scientist for Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees sea turtle research and compiles sea turtle nesting data for the State. Since the Conservancy is one of the few organizations that does nighttime research and has satellite tagged loggerhead sea turtles in previous years, Simona asked us to help her out by attaching satellite tags on specific sea turtles that nested on Keewaydin Island.
Now, the process of satellite tagging is not an easy one. First you have to find a suitable candidate, and this year Simona was interested in tagging previously satellite tagged turtles, which limited our pool of applicants. Then you have to hope you see one of the few you targeted for a tag on the beach (which is hit or miss when you have miles of beach to monitor and only a few people.) We can tell sea turtles apart by their pit tag (similar to a microchip for a pet) or metal flipper tags that have unique identification numbers. If you hit the jackpot and see one of the sea turtles you are “looking for”, when they finish nesting you have to corral her in a wooden box so you can attach the satellite tag. This is not always easy, since these turtles weigh over 200 pounds, and are much stronger than you are. After all, they have just finished the arduous task of nesting and are not always pleased to see you. Just so you know — this in no way hurts the sea turtle, it is just an inconvenience to them and we are more likely to get hurt in the process!
Doodler and Hobbit fit the bill and were within our pool of candidates. We call Doodler one of our “Bahama Mamas”, since after all of that hard work nesting on Keewaydin, she tends to book it down to the Bahamas for some rest and relaxation, or at least she did in 2011 and 2015.
Doodler received her third satellite tag May of 2021, and we were anxious to see if she still went down to the islands after nesting. Alas, we might never know. Unfortunately, after we tagged her, she came up to nest on Keewaydin again in June and decided to nest in the vegetation. While this is usually fine, when she left her nesting spot the tag got snagged on a branch and released the tag from her shell. So… we are back to square one with Doodler and hope to catch her nesting again later this month and reattach the tag. This is the life of a scientist, filled with high expectations when you tag a turtle, disappointment when the tag comes off before you find out what you wanted to know, followed by the hope of trying again.
Hobbit on the other hand, received her second satellite tag this year and to date is still carrying her tag. We are crossing our fingers that she makes it through nesting season with her tag still attached. We are curious to know if she repeats her journey after leaving Keewaydin and heads to the Keys and southwest of the tip of Florida, similar to her journey post-nesting with her first satellite tag in 2013.