Studying Sea Turtles in Chesapeake Bay and Virginia Ocean Waters

Studying Sea Turtles in Chesapeake Bay and Virginia Ocean Waters

This project started in 2011 and is a multi-faceted study to update our knowledge of sea turtles in Chesapeake Bay and ocean waters off Virginia. The project includes collecting data from aerial surveys and satellite tags to estimate abundance, using satellite tagging to better understand habitat use, studying stranded animals to identify the causes of mortalities, and investigating sea turtle diets to document their primary food resources.

Preliminary results for the study area suggest that there are 70,000 sea turtles in ocean waters up to 40 miles offshore and 9,000 sea turtles in the Chesapeake Bay each year. Animals satellite-tagged in Virginia inhabit the Chesapeake Bay and mid-Atlantic waters in summer and move south to North Carolina and as far as Florida in winter. One turtle (Fireworks) moved to offshore ocean waters and was successfully tracked for more than 500 days. Sea turtle strandings in Virginia remain high, averaging more than 200 per year, and some of the leading causes involve human interactions such as fishing gear entanglements, boat strikes, and marine debris ingestion. The study of sea turtle diets may help explain some of the reasons for interactions that cause strandings. This project will end in 2014 with updates to the Virginia and Maryland Sea Turtle Conservation Plans.

The project is funded through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Section 6 Species Recovery Grant awarded to the Commonwealth of Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The research is being conducted by the Aquarium with assistance from Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.

Satellite Tagged Turtles (1), Satellite Tagged Turtles (2), Fireworks show the tracks of satellite tagged sea turtles.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchlings – Rearing, Release and Tracking

Each year, four loggerhead hatchlings are selected from nests at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park and brought to the Aquarium for study, public display, and eventual release. The young sea turtles will spend one year at the Aquarium under the watchful eyes of our animal care staff and an adoring public. In the wild, these young loggerheads would leave the beach and face many predators to reach their goal of finding patches of sargassum seaweed near the Gulf Stream. Loggerheads spend their early years drifting with currents in the open sea, a period called the "lost years" because we know so little about their lives during this time.

While these turtles are at the Aquarium, we collect data to develop a better understanding of the early growth and development of loggerhead sea turtles, including studies of the hatchlings' swimming capabilities at different growth stages. After one year, the young turtles are prepared for release off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina. We equip the turtles with specially designed satellite transmitters so that we can monitor their movements and behavior once they re-enter their natural ocean habitat.

This project is made possible through public donations and our partnerships with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Old Dominion University, and University of Central Florida.

You can stop by to visit the young sea turtles at the Aquarium and then follow their post-release tracks at the Yearling Loggerhead Satellite Tracking website.