Tagging turtles in the Red Sea

I started my studies at KAUST four years ago, at that time I was the first person at my university to study sea turtles. I did not have expertise in the topic, and really did not know much about them at all. What I did have was a passion for conservation and a love of science, and those two interests were enough driving force to motivate me to learn all about methods used globally to help protect sea turtles. Check out this video of me tagging turtles onboard the OceanX

  1. What is satellite tagging?

Satellite tags are used to study animal movements. They are able to take a snapshot of the animal’s location through two different methods. One is called “Argos” and the other is called “Fastloc”, both of these technologies are incorporated into the tags I used in my PhD. Argos is more basic, and works by transmitting a signal to satellites, which use the relative movement of the satellite over a certain time period to determine the tag’s location. Fastloc is similar to GPS, which is a relatively new innovation. It only works for animals who surface, as the antennae of the tag needs to break the water’s surface to communicate with the satellites to send the data. Conventional GPS units take several sections to generate a location estimate, whereas Fastloc can take 10’s of milliseconds. The accuracy is usually pretty good, within 10s of meters of the true location.

A satellite tag in the process of being attached

2. Why satellite tag?

Understanding an animal’s movement ecology is important for conservation. If we don’t know where an animal is spending its time, we don’t know how to protect it. The two places turtles spend most of their lives are their foraging grounds, and their nesting ground (with a migration between these spots). One of my objectives is to tag nesting turtles, so I can assess their post-nesting migration route to find where they are foraging. Sea turtles can lay several nests in a single nesting season, so she will mate, lay eggs, repeat up to 5-10 times before migrating back to her foraging ground. Both the nesting area and foraging areas are critical areas for protection. And it is important to protect sea turtles since nearly all of the species are classified as Endangered by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Turtle populations are declining worldwide, largely due to human impacts. This can include plastic ingestion, plastic entanglement, getting caught as by-catch, getting stuck in ghost nets, being hit by boats, habitat degradation, and climate change. Hawksbill turtles have had a predicted 90% population decrease in the last century, which is why it is so important to protect them

A beautiful green sea turtle, which are protected in the Maldives where the photo was taken

3. How to satellite tag?

Satellite tagging requires cleaning the shell of the sea turtle, than using epoxy to attach the tag, the entire process can take an hour. But before tagging you need to find the turtles. The easiest way to find turtles to tag is at night on a turtle nesting beach, when the females come onto the sand to nest, we wait for her to lay her eggs, and then we use a box to cage her in so she doesn’t head directly to the sea. If the turtles seem stress we can cover her eyes with a wet towel to calm her down. Tagging at night is tough because it requires pulling all-nighters, as turtles are only nesting at night, so we walk along the beach all night from sunset to sunrise to find them.

A turtle in her turtle box

Another way I have found turtles to tag is by using a method called manta towing, which involves being towed on a line behind a boat. When we see a turtle we let go and freedive down to catch the turtle and bring it back to the boat to be tagged. This takes a lot more effort, as you have to be a comfortable freediving. But through this method you can capture juvenile turtles and males, which is not possible on nesting beaches.

4. What are the challenges?

To be blunt, there are a lot of challenges in the field. Especially if you are trying to tag turtles in a remote area. The island I was tagging on was nearly 2 hours from the coast, with no internet. Since the commute is so long, we had to be lucky with the weather. I had a 3 tagging missions this year. One of which was cancelled completely due to weather, we waiting patiently at coastguard for them to tell us we couldn’t go out, which was so heartbreaking when I had spent so much time organizing the logistics, my field kit, and everything. Further, the boat couldn’t anchor on the beach of the island so we had to swim all of our equipment to the island. We did bring a tiny inflatable boat but we often still had to get into the water to swim it to the beach. One time the captain on the boat was fishing as we were on the island, and we had to swim back to the boat at 3 AM in the pitch black as he laughed saying he saw a shark. Not ideal, swimming over deep water in the dark is pretty scary.

Since we needed cages to hold the nesting females, I had to have these made, which was a challenge in itself. Wood is hard to come by in Saudi Arabia, as you can imagine there are no forests here so everything is imported. I looked around in Jeddah, Thuwal, and online with no success, so I ended up buying this wood composite. One major issue was that it was not waterproof, so I had to layer on polyeurethane to do my best to waterproof it. In the end these cages need to hold adult turtles, so the sides were 1.5 m, and each board was super heavy. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be done with these cages!

Finding turtles is another challenge, since turtles are so understudied in this region, I didn’t know exactly when nesting season was so it was kind of a shot in the dark. My first mission was in March, and we were only able to get out two nights and only found one nesting turtle. My tagging trip in July was completely cancelled due to weather and we didn’t make it out to these islands, and then this last trip in October we had great success and I got all my tags out, and I was even worried that there wouldn’t be any turtles nesting.

In 2019 I was helping another scientist here at KAUST with his tagging, and this is when I faced the hardest fieldwork of my life, which was being swarmed by mosquitos when tagging. I can’t even explain to you how many mosquitos were swarming us. We didn’t know there would be many mosquitos, so I was just wearing leggings so I was bit EVERYWHERE. My face was covered and swollen, and the loud noises of the mosquitos were so loud I would run into the sea and go underwater to hide from the mosquitos, but as soon as I came up for air I would just get mouthfulls of the mosquitos. It was rough, and I am so crazy that I went out the following day as well (with a little more preparation at least).

I can’t believe I am putting this photos on the internet but you can see my swollen face

5. What are the perks

Even though I just listed a lot of challenges, I do think this work is so rewarding. I really hope what I do can help with the conservation and management of these amazing animals. Even though I have had some long nights, full of sweat, blood, and tears, I still would do it again if someone asks me. Seeing these dinosaur-like creatures laying eggs is amazing, and makes me really appreciate how these animals have evolved since the triassic period and it is amazing they are still around today, relatively unchanged. My biggest hope is that they will stick around for a while, and that humans aren’t changing the planet in a way that will make it uninhabitable for them.

A tagged green turtle

6. What can you do to help turtles?

If you made it this car in the post, good for you! The most important thing you can do is keep yourself informed and never stop learning. Vote for political candidates that care for the environment, and vote with your dollar by supporting sustainable businesses. When possible, shop small-businesses instead of Amazon. I also recommend doing your best to ditch single use plastic, I can’t even tell you when the last time I used a plastic bag was. I always keep reusable bags with me. The same goes for water bottles and utensils. When it comes to consumerism, the best thing you can do is use what you already have, instead of buying new things, and if you do need new things try to thrift it to extend the life of these perfectly good things. I also encourage you to participate in beach clean ups, diving clean ups, etc., whenever possible. And as obvious as this sounds, don’t buy any turtle products, especially things marketed as “tortoiseshell”, because this can often be the carapace of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. Lastly, I always will encourage people to go vegan or vegetarian. At the very least avoid eating seafood, as sea turtles are so often caught accidentally as by-catch, and killed. Watch “seaspiracy” on Netflix to learn about the complex issues surrounding the seafood industry.

I hope you all learned something about turtles below, and if you are interested in more blog posts about my research I am happy to write more! Thanks for reading, feel free to post your questions below.

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