And they're off: the Tour de Turtles

By Nicole Cate and Noelle Griffin
On July 5, 2016
Turtle on beach

SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

For the fourth year in a row, USF’s Patel College of Global Sustainability is sponsoring a turtle in the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Tour de Turtle, a 14-turtle race won by whichever competitor migrates the furthest. 

Each turtle is tracked for three months. To win the Tour de Turtles, their goal is to be the first turtle to swim the furthest distance during the migration. 

The Patel College’s participation in this event is being spearheaded by David Randle, director of sustainable tourism for the college. He said he got involved in the event after colleagues at Disney told him about it. 

“The purpose is primarily educational, because it reaches thousands of classrooms and children all over the world,” said Randle. “Also, it’s a way to fund research because the race creates an interest for sponsors, because it’s easier for sponsors to get excited about wanting to sponsor a turtle in the race than just to give money to research.” 

The event started in 2008 and begins on Aug. 1 every year. Permitted turtle scouts and Sea Turtle Conservancy staff  go out and find turtles to attach trackers to them that will track their migratory patterns. 

This year, companies like Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Disney Conservation Fund, Disney’s Animals Programs and Disney’s Vero Beach Resort are sponsoring turtles. 

“The research is important because it really tells us what areas are most critical for the turtles habitats, where they go, what areas need protection, what areas need better management,” Randle said. 

The Patel College is co-sponsoring their turtle, named Tortuga Turista, or T.T, along with the Cuba Marine Turtles Program this year. Interestingly, though, despite making several trips to Cuba, T.T. is actually Panamanian. 

When the team in Cuba ended up finding two turtles instead of the projected three, leaving the Patel College without a reptile to sponsor, David Godfrey, executive director of Sea Turtle Conservancy, suggested they try to tag one in Costa Rica. 

However, the college didn’t have any connections to Costa Rica. Instead, contacts in Panama informed Randle that they recently found a turtle that did not have a sponsor, at which point he knew he’d found his turtle. 

To tag the turtles, the team has scouts stake out a beach. When a turtle comes up to lay eggs, the scouts notify the rest of the team. 

After the turtle lays the eggs, covers them and goes to head back into the water, the team forms two walls on both sides of the turtle and guides it into a specially-made corral to rest for the night. 

Then they clean and scrub the turtle’s shell, epoxy the transmitter to the peak of the shell, and attempt to keep the turtle calm and still for two hours so that the epoxy has enough time to dry. The turtle is then released and returns to the ocean. 

“It’s really not about who wins the race, it’s really about raising awareness,” Randle said. “People are recognizing what we do as human beings, particularly in the tourism industry, can either make or break the success of the turtle from either becoming extinct or not extinct.” 

Randle’s hope is that the race inspires people to think about turtle-friendly plans for beaches such as using turtle-friendly lighting to which the animals will go to nest and keeping the beaches clean so raccoons don’t find and eat turtle eggs while rummaging through trash. 

“I think that’s an amazing and intriguing project. Turtle migratory patterns are still widely unknown, so doing more research into where exactly the turtles go is extremely important, and areas that are vital to them can be better protected,” said Dawn Drake, a senior majoring in marine biology. 

“I also like the idea of presenting the tracking data like a race because it gets the public interested in the research and kind of makes it easier to understand and follow.” 

The college’s aim is to make people realize that holidays are about more than sun, sea and sand. The decisions you make while on a trip could affect the environment. 

“I feel like a lot of people that are on vacation are blind to the effect that they have when they leave a place, how they leave a place,” said Justin Farrow, a graduate student double majoring in sustainable tourism and sustainable entrepreneurship and Randle’s teaching assistant. “It will hopefully get Americans thinking a little more about the kind of effect that we have on other places when we visit.” 

“(The) ‘Leave No Trace’ (movement) is very important. Leaving a place for future generations. If we have to bring them in one turtle at a time, then we’ll do that.” 

You can track the T.T's movement here.

Nicole Cate and Noelle Griffin are interns at the Patel College of Global Sustainability.

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