September 12, 2005
Tagged Atlantic Sea Turtles Trace Journeys Online
JOHANNESBURG -- Aitkanti the sea turtle has already braved fishing nets and shark infested waters in her swim from breeding grounds in South America but is only half way to the rich feeding waters off the coast of West Africa.
The endangered leatherback turtle was tagged in Suriname on June 25 with a satellite transmitter, and now the public can track her progress across the Atlantic on the Internet.
So far she has swum 3,000 km (1,800 miles) and dived to depths of 840 metres, more than twice the greatest depth reached the most intrepid human scuba divers.
She is one of 11 leatherbacks, the world's largest turtles, tagged in June and July and tracked to raise awareness about turtle conservation.
"This is the first time the public can trace the movements of so many sea turtles online," said Carlos Drews of conservation group WWF, one of the project's sponsors along with Tortugas Marinas and Caribbean Conservation.
"We have tagged 11 turtles so far and we are hoping to tag 25 in total to have a representative sample of the movements of these turtles in the Atlantic Ocean," he told Reuters by telephone from his office in Costa Rica.
"The transmitter gives you their location, their depth of dives, their speed of travel, their speed during dives and the water temperature."
Exact leatherback numbers are not known globally but the species is widely regarded as endangered.
According to one study, as many as 50,000 leatherbacks are estimated to be caught as fisheries "bycatch" each year.
One of the tagged creatures has already perished. Drews said evidence pointed to a fishing net, the turtles' gravest threat.
"If you click on Kawana you will see how she met her demise off the coast of Suriname and French Guiana by drowning in a gill net," Drews said.
"The record of her last dive indicates that she was held underwater for nine hours which suggests gill nets," he said.
A similar fate could await the other turtles. "Aitkanti is heading toward the coast of West Africa where she will face the challenges of international and coastal fisheries," Drews said.
The turtles are also revealing their migratory routes.
Five of the turtles were tagged in Panama and one of those is already off the coast of South Carolina and appears to be headed north for feeding waters off Nova Scotia.
Another could be the first turtle to show how leatherbacks cross to Latin America from the West African country of Gabon.
Some leatherback populations, such as the one nesting on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast, are on the rebound because of conservation measures to protect their beach nesting sites.
Anyone interested in the movements of the turtles can find them on www.panda.org.