GULFPORT, Miss. -- A boat ride a few miles out into the Mississippi Sound Thursday morning was a return home for three juvenile Kemp's Ridley sea turtles.
Before the BP oil spill, marine scientists on the Mississippi Gulf Coast would see around a dozen or so stranded or dead sea turtles, but suddenly that number went up to around 400.
While working to save them, they used technology to make some first-time discoveries.
Biologists from The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport began pioneering research on this critically endangered animal when strandings and deaths skyrocketed after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"This is one of the important habitats for the juvenile size, your two to six-year-olds. They come on in here, feed for a few years, before they start shifting back towards the adult grounds," explained Dr. Eric Pulis, a Marine Conservation Ecologist at IMMS.
Over the last six years, IMMS has rehabbed and released 900 turtles. A number were also accidentally caught by shrimpers and fisherman. Fifty-five of them, like 'Robert', were outfitted with satellite tracking devices. The data that was fed back from others from past releases, have taught biologists new things about this species.
"We have realized that Mississippi, Louisiana waters is the hub and the habitat. The blue crab is their primary food and when the blue crab fisheries goes down, these animals are hungry," explained Dr. Moby Solangi, President and Executive Director at IMMS.
Scientists used to think Florida was turtle heaven, relocating them there if necessary. But research now shows that's not so.
"We found that when we relocated animals from Mississippi to Florida for example, they all came back to the same location," said Dr. Solangi about tracking turtles back to nearby areas.
Now that they know Kemp's Ridley turtles go from mating and laying eggs in Mexico, to hatchlings on seaweed, to juveniles in local gulf waters with seasonal movements, marine biologists want to educate everyone to save them from the many manmade perils, such as oil pollution, dead zones, marine traffic, dredging and seismic activities.
"And if we don't protect the links of the chain, and once the chain is broken, we all fall apart. At the end of the day, what happens in nature, will ultimately affect us," said Dr. Solangi.