Timid Terrapins and Resolute Researchers

First off, I didn’t have great internet access this summer so please excuse my delayed posts.

After getting in contact with Dr. Andy Coleman, who works at IMMS, I struggled to come up with a time that we could meet. He only took boats out to do surveying during the week, and I worked during the week. However, much to my dismay last weekend, I had to work Saturday. Then my boss gave me the subsequent Monday off! At first, I thought, “What am I going to do all day while everyone else is in class or at work?” Luckily, one of my mentors suggested that I go out on a turtle survey, after I’d been telling her how much I’d been dying to go.  After a quick email exchange with Andy, we decided I could meet up with him and his colleague, Jonathon that Monday.


I pulled into the IMMS parking lot at 7:58 Monday morning and met Andy and Jonathon. I got an informal tour of the facility as we filled up a cooler with ice, grabbed some equipment, and headed out in the truck towards our first stop. First up was Waveland, Mississippi, a small city on the on the Louisiana-Mississippi border that was struck hard by Katrina nearly a decade ago. The region has made some progress recovering, but due to the depressed economy, it’s been slow going.

In Waveland, we launched our skiff into the Mississippi Sound. After a short boat ride through the bayou, we stopped on some solid ground to look for Terrapins. We used a radio-transmitter to listen for in what direction the turtles might be. While they had tagged five turtles, we were only able to get a signal for one of them. The others could have been out of range or in the water. The turtles were tagged when they were seen laying eggs and making nests on the beach. Most turtles nest and live in the same general area, but it is possible that a couple of the turtles might have nested there once, only to leave the surrounding area. We were attempting to locate this turtle via triangulation, which involves going to three different sites and using the radio transmitter to listen for the same turtle and then drawing lines to approximate the turtle’s location.  Each turtle’s transmitter has its own signal that allows us to distinguish which is which. We weren’t able to get the signal for that turtle more than once, so we docked and got ready for the next site.

Next, we drove to Bay St. Louis, the next town over, often referred to the last stop until Louisiana. They had recently done some coastal revitalization, which could have some effect on turtle populations. After driving the boat out for about ten minutes, we realized we had forgotten the GPS in the car. We had to drive back and get it since it was an important for gathering necessary data. After that little snafu, we got to the little island where a lot of nesting occurs and looked for depredated nests. In these nests, eggs have been eaten or the nests destroyed by a predator, most often raccoons. They slice the eggs open with their human-like hands in order to eat them. Our depredated nest survey counted 12 nests with an average of 7-11 eggs per nest. They were difficult to find! Andy was an expert, but the nests really blended in with the sandy, scrubby, marsh substrate. On our drive back, we saw a dead alligator gar, but we thought it was a dolphin until we got close. If it had been a dolphin, Andy and Jonathon would have had to call it in, and possibly perform an in-field necropsy. It would have been interesting, but I’m not sure I would have been able to stomach it. We also stopped at a GeoTube, which is a giant tube of sand designed to reduce erosion on the edges of the marsh. While preventing erosion, they think it might also reduce nesting options for turtles since they can’t just swim up on the beach. IMMS is trying to get a grant to further study the GeoTube’s effects.

When we got back to their main facility, Andy took me on a tour so I could see all of the work they do there.  They rehabilitate sea turtles and dolphins that have been stranded or hooked. I got to see where all the turtles live while they are recovering—they have mostly Kemp’s Ridleys and a couple Loggerheads. IMMS did a lot of work during Katrina and the BP Oil Spill. After my tour, Andy had arranged for me to sit in on the Dolphin show as well as the Sea Lion show—and then I got to look around their museum afterwards.

I got to share with the staff at both IMMS and the National Seashore about what I had tried to do with BRDs at home, and they were all enthusiastic about public marine education in that capacity. I even talked to someone in the Education Center at the lab in which I was working, and she encouraged me to come back next summer to do some sort of education project there. While I didn’t get to make the same progress as I had expected to, I learned a lot more about other research efforts across the whole field of marine research and public education; not to mention all that I learned about Terrapins, their life history traits, and threats to various populations. It’s gotten me thinking more about what I’d like to do, and while I’m still not certain, I am certain it will involve interacting with the public. I have high hopes for BRDs in the future and I loved talking to the watermen and citizens about their experiences on the water. I’m already brainstorming for next summer.


  1. What a way to spend a day off Ashley! Have you been down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach? They close public access through the refuge for turtle nesting (and waterfowl migration) during the winter.