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Images: To Track a Sea Turtle

Marine biologist and WHOI guest investigator Kara Dodge (left) and WHOI engineer Amy Kukulya have been teaming up since 2013 to adapt Kukulya’s SharkCam autonomous tracking and imaging system to the challenge of following and filming leatherback sea turtles in their natural environment. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Dodge grew up hearing about the time in 1966 when her father, Richard Dwyer (center, in hat) accidentally caught a leatherback sea turtle in his fishing gear off the coast of Scituate, Mass. Dwyer later released the turtle further off shore in what he thought was the animal’s natural, deep-water habitat. (Photo courtesy of Kara Dodge)
Dodge keeps watch for a sea turtle while Kukulya and Dodge’s husband Mike prepare the suction-cup tag. In previous attempts to tag a turtle, simply finding their quarry proved difficult because they present such a low profile on the water and spend a short time at the surface. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Mike Dodge prepares to tag a leatherback sea turtle. The tag stays on the turtle’s shell until Kukulya sends a coded acoustic signal that triggers a suction cup release mechanism that she designed. Cameras on the tag allow Kara Dodge to record how much a turtle eats and how often it breathes, which allows her to calculate the animal’s metabolic rate and energy consumption. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Kukulya and Dodge prepare a REMUS autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that Kukulya and her colleagues at WHOI’s Oceanographic Systems Lab specially adapted to track and film great white sharks (bite marks are visible in the vehicle’s yellow paint). The vehicle is fitted with six GoPro cameras in special housings, enabling it to film a shark’s or a turtle’s behavior from a variety of angles. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Kukulya releases a second REMUS vehicle that she configured to gather physical, chemical, and biological data from the water near the tagged turtle. During a mission, she constantly monitors the vehicle’s position to keep it about 350 meters (1,150 feet) away. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Once tagged, a leatherback typically dives for the bottom before resuming its normal behaviors. The tag emits a coded acoustic signal that the REMUS TurtleCam vehicle can home in on. The vehicle is programmed to follow the signal and also anticipate the animal’s movements in order to maximize the time that the turtle is in the field of view of one of its six cameras. (Photo courtesy of Amy Kukulya and Kara Dodge, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, under NMFS Permit No. 15672-02)
A tagged turtle surfaces briefly to breathe and finish swallowing a jellyfish. Sea turtles in Vineyard Sound between Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard typically spend most of their time eating—and since jellyfish are mostly water, a sea turtle that weighs a ton or more has to consume a lot of jellyfish to keep its energy up. (Photo by Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, under NMFS Permit No. 15672-02)
In addition to jellyfish, sea turtles in Vineyard Sound encounter many obstacles, some of them fatal. Boat strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and consuming plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish are high on the list, and Dodge hopes that information from TurtleCam will help her better understand the nature of these threats so that she and others can help minimize the danger to threatened species. (Photo courtesy of Amy Kukulya and Kara Dodge, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, under NMFS Permit No. 15672-02)
A tagged leatherback sea turtle swims at the surface with the REMUS TurtleCam vehicle visible underwater in front of it and a fishing buoy in the background. TurtleCam was originally developed to track and film much different behaviors by white sharks and had to be reprogrammed to follow the yo-yo swimming pattern common to air-breathing marine animals. (Photo by Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, under NMFS Permit No. 15672-02)
Next up, Kukulya and colleague Roger Stokey will fine-tune the programming that controls REMUS TurtleCam in order to increase the amount of time the vehicle can keep a tagged turtle in its field of view. Meanwhile, Dodge will spend her winter combing through hours of footage for insights into the little-seen lives of endangered leatherback sea turtles. (Photo by Ken Kostel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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