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Taking a trip with the turtles

June 2, 2008 |  3:43 pm


Watching turtles race across the ocean doesn't sound like the most dynamic contest, but a group of environmentalists and scientists begs to differ -- creating ahighly interactive site chronicling an international Pacific Ocean jaunt for leatherback turtles.

The 11 turtles racing have been equipped with satellite tags and are headed toward the International Dateline (or the middle of the Pacific Ocean) from nesting beaches in Indonesia and feeding areas along the U.S. West Coast. The race, which begins today and runs until June 16, covers more than 3,000 miles.

The leatherback is a sea turtle that's been around for 100 million years -- they have outlived the dinosaurs but now are dangerously close to extinction, said Mike Milne, Leatherback Campaign Coordinator for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, one of the race's sponsors.

Numbers in the Pacific Ocean have decreased from about 115,000 two decades ago to fewer than 5,000 today. The Web site chronicling the race aims to raise funds for protecting leatherback turtle-nesting areas in Indonesia, organizers said.

"The decline of leatherbacks in the Pacific is an international problem that calls for an international solution, so our Great Turtle Race efforts to raise the international profile of this species are an important step," Milne said.

Dubbed the Great Turtle Race II, organizers include The Leatherback Trust, NOAA, Global Cause, Tagging of Pacific  Pelagics, Sea Turtle Restoration Project, and Drexel University. Eleven institutions and sponsors from America, China and Indonesia are sponsoring the turtles.

As the leatherbacks surface to breath every several minutes, satellite tags transmit data such as location and water temperature to satellites in space, which then transmit the data back down to computer servers in the U.S. 

"This data is combined with remotely sensed information about sea surface temperature, sea surface height, and more to build a comprehensive understanding of leatherbacks’ epic, trans-Pacific  migrations," Milne said. "Scientists and managers will be able to use this information on oceanography, animal behaviors and human pressures to develop innovative ways to conserve leatherbacks and other sea turtles."

-- Francisco Vara-Orta

Photo: Scott Benson/U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service

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