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Rare endangered sea turtle tagged on Sanibel

By Staff | May 22, 2020

FLORIDA LEATHERBACKS INC. Juniper, an endangered leatherback sea turtle, returns to the ocean after nesting on Sanibel.

After laying several nests earlier in the season, a team of biologists has encountered and tagged a rare leatherback sea turtle that is nesting along Sanibel and Captiva. She can now be tracked in real time as she travels the Southwest Florida coast.

On April 1, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation biologists discovered a leatherback track on Sanibel. Over the next few weeks, they recorded several nests on Sanibel and Captiva that indicated that they were likely laid by the same turtle. On the night of May 10, the research team was able to observe the turtle nesting while conducting its regular nightly tagging surveys. The team decided to name the turtle “Juniper.” She is an average size leatherback measuring 152.5 centimeters in curved carapace (shell) length and 111 centimeters curved carapace width.

Leatherbacks very rarely nest on Florida’s Gulf Coast as they prefer Southeast Florida beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. SCCF Coastal Wildlife Director Kelly Sloan saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the turtle and reached out to biologists with Florida Leatherbacks Inc.

Florida Leatherbacks is a nonprofit dedicated to researching leatherbacks that nest on the east coast. Sloan coordinated with Chris Johnson and Kelly Martin, who made plans to travel to Sanibel and Captiva in an attempt to encounter Juniper and place a satellite tracking device on her.

“This was an amazing opportunity to track a leatherback from a location never before tracked and gain valuable research data about her behavior and movements in the Gulf of Mexico,” Martin said.

FLORIDA LEATHERBACKS INC. The tagging team members from the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and Florida Leatherbacks Inc. with Juniper as she finishes covering up her nest.

Based upon timing between nests, Florida Leatherbacks biologists believe that Juniper may have already laid six nests this season. On May 19, a team from Florida Leatherbacks and SCCF found Juniper nesting once again on Sanibel and they were able to place a small satellite transmitter on her carapace. The batteries in the transmitter have the capacity to transmit for as long as two years, but Florida Leatherbacks realistically expect to be able to follow Juniper for nine to 12 months.

The transmitter will allow Florida Leatherbacks to track Juniper, locate additional nests if she nests again, and follow her travels after nesting season is over.

“Satellite tracking technology is an amazing tool to count and identify sea turtle nest locations,” Johnson said. “In 2018 we identified as many as 11 nests from a single leatherback utilizing satellite transmitters.”

Since tagging Juniper, she has traveled approximately 100 kilometers.

“This collaborative effort was a huge success. We are so excited that we were able to take advantage of this unique opportunity and learn more about leatherbacks that nest on the Gulf Coast,” Sloan said. “Thanks to FLI, we will now be able to follow Juniper as she swims off Sanibel. We are looking forwarding to seeing if she nests once again or if she’s ready to head to her foraging grounds.”

To follow Juniper’s travels, visit www.trackturtles.com.