A Night in the Life of a Sea Turtle Biologist


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Sea Turtle Biologist Show and Tell!

Dr. Joe Pfaller is a Sea Turtle Biologist, and in this show and tell video of his work he’s on Wassaw island working for the Caretta Research Project. It’s an island off of Savannah, Georgia where he studies nesting sea turtles. This means he not only gets to research sea turtles, but live in the heart of a national wildlife refuge!

In fact, he starts this sea turtle video with a gator pond behind him… And a few casual comments about seeing them on the road at night!

A day in the life of a Sea Turtle Biologist

Joe and his team have just taken the boat in from the mainland, drove vehicles through the forest to get to their spot, and are about to unload and prepare their gear for the night. The video jumps into the daily routine of a Sea Turtle Biologist!

As they start out, the team is hoping to hit the beach at night and find some turtles. Fingers crossed for adult females laying eggs, and maybe (if they’re lucky) some hatchlings! This video was recorded at just that time of year when the hatchlings are starting to come up out of the sand.

4:00pm – The Turtle Research Cabin

At this time, most of the volunteers are sleeping because the plan is to head out about 9pm, and be out on the beach until 6am.

Check out this part of the video to see the sea turtle research cabin

The cabin is where all the food is kept, the volunteers hang out, and the staff sleep. It’s home base during the active sea turtle field research.

6:30pm

The crew is fed, all set to go out onto the beach, and the mules are ready (Kawasaki, not horse mules). Time for a few extra naps, and then it will be time to go out and see what they can find!

9:00pm – Research Orientation

This project is lucky enough to include volunteers, but before taking them on the beach Joe has to teach them about all the data they collect. He shows them the data sheets everything will be recorded on, the vials for samples, what the tags look like and how to read them, as well as teaching them how to move around the turtles.

It’s important to ensure everyone has a great experience, not just the volunteers but also the turtles.

9:45pm – Hitting the beach!

Under the cover of darkness, the beach patrols begin. Jump to this part of the video to see the start of their sea turtle beach patrol adventure.

What the team is looking for as they drive down the beach, is a crawl left behind by a big sea turtle. Or, the turtle crawling up itself.

The patrols aren’t random, but instead very standardized procedures used to systematically test the number of nests and crawls of the turtles they see on any given night of the year. The same kind of patrols have been done for the past 50 years. This allows the sea turtle research teams to compare any given night within a season across any other season. This long term dats is really important for understanding how sea turtle populations are changing over time.

10:45pm

First run down the beach done, no turtle sightings. A couple nests checked, but no hatchling action. One sea turtle nest did have a depression, which indicates the hatchlings down below are likely hatching out of the eggs. As they hatch and make their way up, the turtle hatchlings take the sand above them and pull it below. So, something is going on down there and the team will check it again a little later.

12:30am

Touched base with the other crew, who had a turtle! Joe’s team took a stroll down to the south end, and came across some tracks! Tag along as Joe follows the sea turtle tracks.

At the end of the tracks was a beautiful adult Loggerhead Turtle! the average Loggerhead Turtle clutch size is 115 eggs, and on finding this turtle it looks like she’s already laying eggs. So, Joe went to check it out, and watch her lay her eggs!

Since the turtle is laying eggs, it could be as young as 30 years old or as old as 50-60. Loggerheads can live around 60-70 years total. Sometimes they have turtles that lay eggs for almost 30 years. She’s also probably already laid a few clutches in the current season, and is likely laying her last ones. Each turtle may lay up to 8 clutches in a single season. The sea turtle eggs will be in the ground for about 50 days before the hatchlings emerge from the sand.

1:30am – Turtle number 2!

She’s got a nice big head (where the name Loggerhead Turtle comes from) and is popping out eggs. She’s also laid her nest in a great place so it won’t need to be relocated.

As she’s laying, the volunteers collect data on head and body size.

After the turtle is done laying it’s eggs, she’ll actually cover and disguise the nest. It may look like the turtle is struggling a bit, but she’s actually using her back flippers to move the sand and cover the nest. She’ll pound the sand down with her shell and eventually start moving her front flippers to sling sand all over the place and disguise the nest from predators (and researchers). Watch this mama turtle cover her eggs.

2:45am – Turtle number 3!

For this one, Joe checks the turtle’s ID tag. Scientists use these to track individuals.

Red lights are used on the beach because a turtle’s vision is less sensitive to the red part of the light spectrum. Driving with the red lights at night has a better chance of not disturbing them during their nesting process.

4:00am

The team decided to check a couple of nests for hatchling activity, and got lucky! There were a couple little noses sticking out, and then they got to watch the sea turtle hatchlings emerge!

6:00am – Nights Over

The tally – 3 nests on the south end, 1 on the north end, a few dry runs (where a turtle comes up but does not lay eggs – but hopefully they come back up tomorrow).

The team is ready to head back to the cabin, and get some sleep. Until tomorrow night 🙂

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