Wrangling reptiles, sea creatures that swim, in the name of science, grab your mask, snorkel, fins. Turtle Rodeo is the research technique, an ocean adventure not for the meek.
Sea turtles spend 99% of their life in the water, which means researchers need to go to the turtle’s turf to study them. Scientists hand capture the turtles, rodeo style to measure, weigh, tag, and assess their health. On my recent eco-volunteer expedition in the Bahamas, I joined researchers for a week at the rodeo to study juvenile green sea turtles.
Factoid Alert: Green sea turtles aren’t green. They get their name from all the seagrass they eat. It makes their guts green!
We use a motor boat to look for turtles in the shallow coastal waters where turtles forage for seagrass. We keep our eyes peeled and when we spot one, we don’t let it out of our sight. Sea turtles are strong, fast swimmers. Those flippers are all muscle. They bob and weave, zig and zag, dash and dart. There’s one! Just below the surface of the shimmering turquoise water. Our boat driver swerves and circles to match the turtle’s every motion.
Factoid Alert: Green sea turtles can stay underwater for as long as five hours, even though the length of a feeding dive is usually five minutes or less. Their heart rate slows to conserve oxygen; nine minutes may elapse between heartbeats.
When the turtle is close to the boat, I get the signal to jump in for the chase. I swim hard and fast, using a crawl stroke. My goal is to catch up to the turtle and position myself above it. When it comes up to the surface to take a breath, I’ll reach out and grab her front flippers and hold on tight. Success! The turtle squirms and struggles a little bit, but I handle it with care.
Factoid Alert: Sea turtles can’t pull their head or flippers into their shell (the size of their flippers are way to big) and their streamlined shell helps them soar through the water (having ‘pockets’ to fit the flippers would reduce hydrodynamics).
Sea turtles are gentle creatures and when I get back in the boat, she lays calmly on my lap. We bring the turtle on the boat to collect all of our data and then release it back to its ocean home.
Factoid Alert: A sea turtle’s shell is called a carapace. The underside of their body is the plastron.
*Find a few snapshots of me in the gallery pictures below; wearing my mask and snorkel with my captured turtle, tummy side to the sky. Tagging a sea turtle, holding a turtle in my lap and holding a turtle up to the camera (in my floppy pink hat).