Sea turtles followed with Stanford tracking device reach California coast, researchers say

BySpencer Christian and Timothy Didion KGO logo
Friday, February 23, 2024
Sea turtles followed with tracking device reach CA coast: researchers
Researchers hope to learn if a climate-driven pathway is allowing some sea turtles to travel thousands of miles to the coast of CA and Mexico.

STANFORD, Calif. (KGO) -- When we first met a group of endangered loggerhead sea turtles last year, they were plunging into the Pacific, outfitted with satellite tracking devices. Since then, researchers from Stanford have been waiting anxiously, hoping to learn if a mysterious climate-driven pathway is allowing some of the turtles to travel thousands of miles, to the coast of California and Mexico, crossing waters that are normally too cold for them.

"So the hypothesis is that under warm ocean conditions, we'll see more sea turtles make it to the North American coast," says Dana Briscoe, Ph.D., a researcher with Stanford's Doerr School of Sustainability.

She says the sea turtles -- seen as colored lines in an animation -- typically follow a food-rich band of warm water, known as the North Pacific Transition Zone, which acts something like a floating buffet.

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A few Loggerhead sea turtles may not realize it, but they're setting off on a journey that could change the way we understand the Pacific Ocean.

But then a satellite tracking map showed the movement researchers were waiting for. In late October and early November, more than half a dozen sea turtles began peeling ways away from the buffet line, heading southeast, with three turtles reaching the coastline of Mexico and Southern California.

"That's right," says a smiling Briscoe. "We have a milestone in our project. We have three sea turtles that have reached the North American coast and are doing very different things."

Briscoe and fellow Stanford-Doerr researcher Larry Crowder have hypothesized that the break-away turtles are slipping through a kind of Thermal Corridor. It's a warm water channel, they believe opens up during warm El Nino years and essentially slams shut when waters cool back down. Professor Crowder says this winter's tracking data could potentially confirm the El Nino part of the effect.

"And it happens to fit pretty well with our hypothesis that we put out there in advance. So, it's really exciting, because we're doing an experiment at an oceanographic scale. We're testing a hypothesis. Nobody's ever done that before," Crowder said.

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And if their luck holds out in a few months, the Stanford team will get a chance to test the flip side of the theory, with a colder La Nina current potentially in the forecast. This provides a chance to see if the cooler waters shut down the Thermal Corridor.

"This July, we'll be releasing another 25 turtles. And we hope to get the same amount of information as this year. And we can compare and contrast and see under El Nino versus La Nina conditions. What will the turtles do the same and what will they do differently?" Briscoe said.

And whether some do or don't make it to the coast of North America. But ultimately, the Stanford team believes their research may also provide a look into the future -- uncovering critical clues to how climate change and warming ocean waters might affect the migration patterns of both the Sea Turtles and many other marine creatures as well.

Marine scientists are already studying the turtles who've made it to Mexico and Southern California, trying to learn more about their behavior along our coast. Follow along on the turtle tracker map here.

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