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Satellite-tracked Sea Turtle Attacked By Shark, Rescued; 'She Wasn't Swimming Well - She Was Limping'
Underwatertimes.com News Service
August 28, 2009 16:56 EST

MARATHON, Florida Keys -- A loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) bearing a satellite tracking tag from Mote Marine Laboratory was rescued on Sunday, Aug. 23, and brought to the Florida Keys for treatment of serious shark bites.

The 200-pound adult female turtle with a 3-foot-long carapace, nicknamed "Wham," was found by staff at Dry Tortugas National Park, an island cluster west of Key West, and transported to Key West by Fastcat Ferry and then on to The Turtle Hospital in Marathon.

According to Ryan Butts, administrator at The Turtle Hospital, Wham lost 6 inches of her left flipper and her entire right front flipper to a shark bite. "A boat wouldn't have been able to take out the distal end of both flippers," he said. Still, the turtle may return to the wild, he said. "Provided she responds to treatment, she should be fine to be released." Wham is receiving care for her wounds and antibiotics for possible infections.

Wham is The Turtle Hospital's first patient to come in bearing a satellite tag - a cell-phone-sized device that Mote scientists use to track sea turtles in real time. When the turtles come to the surface to breathe, the tag transmits data to a satellite, which then sends it back to scientists. Mote has been satellite tracking turtles since 2005 to identify critical habitats for sea turtles and focus on threats they face while swimming hundreds of miles between feeding and breeding areas. Sea turtles are federally protected in U.S. waters and loggerhead sea turtles are considered threatened.

Mote's tracking map shows that Wham - tagged May 28 at her nesting grounds on Casey Key in Sarasota County - nested six times and went south to feed on July 20. But she stopped for days near Cuba - possibly where the shark bit her, Mote scientists said. Then Wham turned toward Mexican waters but drifted instead to the Dry Tortugas by Aug. 21 on the Loop Current, a strong water flow near Florida's southern tip. Her injuries probably hampered her ability to cross the Current.

"She wasn't swimming well - she was limping," said Tony Tucker, manager of Mote's Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program. "Her wounds weren't fresh anymore when she reached Dry Tortugas. We think the shark bit her north of Cuba, because she stopped there. Turtles don't usually stop on the way to their feeding grounds, according to our other satellite tracking maps."

Mote researchers have satellite-tagged 71 sea turtles, starting with five tags in 2005. This year they're tracking 23 females from Casey Key - the largest bunch yet - including "Wiblet," a turtle tagged three years in a row, and "Chompy" and "Rafael," both tagged for their second year.

These turtles have returned to the same foraging grounds repeatedly. Mote's multiple taggings are confirming what scientists have long suspected - that sea turtles have fidelity to feeding grounds as well as nesting beaches. "Their repeat visits to certain feeding grounds won't surprise sea turtle biologists, but to confirm it with hard numbers is really rare," Tucker said. "We're the first, to our knowledge, to record this behavior for turtles in the Gulf of Mexico."

Along with nesting females, Mote scientists have satellite tagged four male loggerhead turtles released from Mote's Sea Turtle Hospital, to study how they fare after recovering and also to learn about what male turtles do in the wild. Male turtles are less studied than females because they don't come to the beaches regularly the way females do to nest.

Mote's long-term studies of sea turtles provide crucial information that policymakers and conservationists use to manage and protect these vulnerable species.