Woods Hole researchers raising money to study leatherback turtles with ‘Shark Week’ robot

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Scientists who study giant leatherback turtles off the New England coast are hoping to enlist the help of a sunshine yellow torpedo-shaped robot to follow the animals around in the open ocean.

The robot in question, named Remus, is something of a veteran naturalist — since 2011, it’s been dispatched to follow great white sharks carrying six video cameras, recording footage for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week series.

Researchers are now raising money to send Remus after leatherback turtles, long-distance travelers that swim hundreds of miles each year following the seasons and their principle snack: jellyfish. In the warmest days of summer, massive turtles stop off in New England just off the Nantucket coast.

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Once abundant, recently their populations globally have thinned out. Because they’re hard to watch out in the open ocean, their habits and behaviors have remained a mystery to scientists who are looking to help boost their numbers.

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, researcher Kara Dodge has studied the animals for nearly a decade.  She’s stuck tags on the turtles that send pings to satellites overhead, transmitting location information each time the animals dive and surface. Also, using temporary sensors attached to the animals via suction cups, Dodge has been able to piece together the migratory habits of leatherbacks from way up north all the way to Venezuela.

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But Dodge has rarely watched the turtles interact with their prey, or with each other. That’s where Remus can help. It can carry six off-the-shelf GoPro cameras and be loaded up with sensors to monitor ocean temperature, depth, how murky the water is.

“It basically plays the most advanced game of Marco Polo you’ve ever seen,” said Amy Kukulya, an operations engineer at WHOI who prepped the bot for the shark work and is collaborating with Dodge to watch the turtles during their visit to New England.

Dodge and Kukulya are inviting curious scientists and science enthusiasts to help pay for the expedition, because grant money for pilot projects like this one is hard to come by. They hope to raise $10,000 by the end of the month through a crowdfunding campaign launched Friday, in time to take five trips into ocean before the turtles shift further offshore in mid-September.

An early goal is to determine why the New England coast is such an appealing destination each summer. “We’d really like to know what makes it so ideal for these turtles,” Dodge said.

Images of Remus via WHOI

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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