Since 2012, IRG has been exploring the coastal waters of Florida’s Big Bend region. Without sandy beaches and nesting activity, the area has been overlooked in sea turtle conservation. However, the region’s vast seagrass beds, sponges, and rocky outcroppings are attractive for multiple species and size classes of sea turtles. Primarily working in the waters near Crystal River, FL, IRG has captured almost 400 turtles across four different species with Kemp’s ridley and green turtles being the most abundant. Visual surveys and low recapture rates suggest some of the highest sea turtle densities IRG has ever documented. IRG’s ability to consistently capture turtles at this study site has led to partnerships with researchers from across the United States. These researchers have collected data to study sea turtle health, disease prevalence, movement, and more. The vast seagrass beds are relatively undisturbed and provide plentiful foraging for green turtles in the area, so we expected the turtles to be in pristine health. However, IRG has documented fibropapillomatosis, a viral disease that affects sea turtle health, in 70% of green turtles. The rate is higher than sites where polluted waters are thought to promote the disease. We are currently working with our collaborators to better understand why so many green turtles are affected by fibropapillomatosis here. Big Bend’s waters are vast, and each trip brings new insights and even more questions. IRG’s research in Big Bend has been supported by multiple funding agencies since its inception.
IRG’s Big Bend sea turtle project continues to identify new areas that are important to sea turtle conservation in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection established the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve which encompasses our long-term study site near Crystal River and the newly surveyed location to the south in Pasco County. While the study is relatively new, the IRG team has documented differences in sea turtle species composition, abundance, and fibropapilloma tumor rate compared to Crystal River.
The research has been a collaborative effort with IRG’s Education Department. The education team hosts professional development days where educators gain field experience with IRG biologists as they capture turtles and collect data. The on-the-water days are paired with a hands-on workshop designed to teach educators how to run our Traveling Trunk programs in their schools. This project is supported by The National Academy of Sciences, Duke Energy, Pasco County School District, and an Anonymous Donor.
Gulf of Mexico
During the summer of 2010, BP’s Macondo Well spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. With the tremendous need for expertise in locating and capturing marine wildlife, IRG was called on to play an integral role in rescuing oiled sea turtles. Through these efforts, over 500 sea turtles affected by the spill were brought ashore for cleaning and rehabilitation. This cooperative effort, involving several organizations and government agencies, resulted in almost 99% survival for the turtles fortunate enough to be rescued. Following the containment of the oil spill, IRG continued work as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) to determine the full impact the spill had on sea turtles and their habitats in the Gulf. The expertise and information gained during the oil spill gives IRG scientists a unique position to shape restoration efforts and future sea turtle conservation in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the oil spill, IRG has surveyed the coastal waters of Louisiana to gather data on the abundance of marine turtles and identified promising sites for the establishment of long-term in-water monitoring.
Currently, IRG’s focus is on studying young turtles living in the open ocean. The goal is to better understand species abundance and determine what beaches these turtles hatched on. Additionally, some turtles captured by IRG are satellite-tagged and tracked by researchers at the University of Central Florida. We aim to better understand the movement patterns and dispersal of very young turtles in the open ocean. Our Gulf of Mexico work has been funded by multiple agencies, grants, and donations since its inception.