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Who is involved in saving the sea turtles and who else can be?

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

On St. Catherine’s Island doomed nests needed to be moved, data about sea turtles needed to be collected, and generations that would one day inherit the same responsibility needed to be educated.

As a response, Dr. Gail Bishop, a college professor, and Nancy Marsh, a high school teacher, started the SCI Sea turtle program in 1990. “Nests are our primary objective,” noted Dr. Bishop, but they did not stop there. Dr.Bishop thought “if we could save turtles and bring students or teachers onto the islands, they could carry that experiential learning back into their classroom.” That’s exactly what happened.

The SCI Sea Turtle program brings together teacher-interns and geology and biology undergraduates spend the summer on St. Catherine’s Island. They work on the beach 6-7 hours per day for 150 days. GSU STEM students who do not have 150 days to spend, enroll in an 11 day total immersion Sea Turtle Field School. It’s hard work but the sea turtles are worth it. In 2015, the program's record year, 209 nests were found (compared to the 192 in 2013) and 15,787 loggerhead hatchlings were put into the Atlantic Ocean (compared to the 15,580 in 2013).

While working to save the sea turtles, interns get to bond through celebration. Together they hang a Mongolian blue prayer flag to serve as a symbol of honoring all the turtles that have nested, are nesting, and will ever nest.

Around 385 interns, 275 of which were school teachers, have since participated in the SCI Sea Turtle Program and the impact has been astounding. As a result of this program, 100+ technical presentations have been shared, 43 papers have been published, 5 museums exhibits have been built, and 13 websites have been created. It is even estimated that the teachers have impacted a minimum of 312,000 K-12 students.

In the first 25 years of operation, the St. Catherine’s Island Sea Turtle Program resulted in 3080 sea turtle nests conserved, and 186, 374 sea turtle hatchlings put into the Atlantic Ocean. The work of saving the sea turtles is more important now than ever before. According to Dr. Bishop “Sea levels are rising worldwide and it’s very, very apparent on St. Catherine’s Island.” On St. Catherine’s Island these sea levels are causing devastating habitat erosion. Refer to the 2014 Brian Mayer map of SCI.

The red, orange, and yellow colors are areas of land erosion while the blue and green colors are areas of land growth. 75% of the sea turtle nesting habitat is being eroded. (For information about sea turtles and the process of saving them refer to the previous blog post)

To increase efficiency and decrease physical labor, Dr.Bishop is currently exploring collaboration with drones. One difficulty of SCI is that three different beaches have to be accessed simultaneously. At minimum, drones could fly to the end of the farthest beach and inform Dr.Bishop and his team of whether or not there are crawl ways. The information of how many miles the researchers have to cover saves time and a day of work could be planned accordingly.

The Kashmir World Foundation MiShell Project takes the task a step further, developing drone AI to be able to recognize sea turtle tracks as well as nests and process data on board. For the topic of sea turtle research, another team is working on building a blended wing aircraft to be able to fly near the Wyoming cliffs in the picture below. The cliffs have a layer of black sand deposit, indicating the possibility to find fossilized sea turtles and fossilized sea turtle nests. If you are interested in becoming an intern feel free to reach out via the KwF website.

Meet some KwF interns working on these projects!

Can you introduce yourself? Something along the lines of your name, age, school, major (if applicable),where you are in the world, and anything else that you would like to add.

  • Diana Bernate: I am Latina, I am 17, and I live in Boulder, Colorado. I am a senior in Fairview High School and my passion is marine biology and technology to support conservation.

  • Joey Licht: I am 19 years old, right now I live in Denver, Colorado, and I just finished my freshman year at MIT studying computer science at math. I’m also on the football team there.

  • Shreya Santhanagopalan: I am 17 years old and currently live in Maryland, but I will be attending Georgia Institute of Technology in the Fall as a computer science major.

What drew you to pursue an internship at the Kashmir World Foundation and how long have you been an intern?

  • Diana : I’ve been an intern for 3 weeks now, almost a month, and I was specifically drawn to the MiShell project because I have been in love with marine biology my whole life. My mother works in machine learning in Google and so I have had some previous experience with her teaching me. Ever since I was little I knew that’s what I wanted to do and so I wanted to get some real life experience under that platform. I saw this project and found it to be incredibly fascinating to combine my two passions.

  • Joey: When I saw what the robotics and the AI teams were doing, I got interested. I thought it was a good combination of doing meaningful work and high-level technical work. I also definitely think its work that once it gets done, it scales well.

  • Shreya: I started the internship June 2019. Back then, my friends and I were entering this competition called Technovation, it's like this global app challenge for girls. When we were at the regional conference, we were listening to Ms.Pandolfi present about the Kashmir World Foundation. I thought it was really cool how they use technology to preserve wildlife. My friends and I ended up winning the competition so we got to meet Ms.Pandolfi and talk more about the projects she was working on. I reached out to her using one of the flyers and I was able to become an intern. It’s an amazing experience and it never gets boring.

What responsibilities are part of your role and what project are you currently working on?

  • Diana : We are first doing a bunch of labeling and we have already finished that piece but now we are training with machine learning and running the AI program. There's a lot of work to be done on the island and it's incredibly inefficient to have to keep up with tracking where the sea turtles are and where the nests are. So, we want to take that off a bunch of researchers hands and do that with a drone.

  • Joey: I’m on Eagle Ray and I’m on the AI team. For the Eagle Ray team, we are working a drone, UAV, a blended wing drone. There is a pretty nice baseline, but the team is trying to optimize the design for efficiency and stability. My responsibility is more along the lines of how long each component should be. For the AI team, we are still in training, but we are learning how to train the neural network. We are using the YOLO algorithm because its fast and efficient for real time object detection.

  • Shreya: I have been working on training machine learning models, training new interns, and learning new software. I'm working on two projects: the first one is the MiShell project, a conservation project where we are trying to identify turtle tracks from a drone to see where the turtles lay their nest. The second project is the Eagle ray and right now, I'm just learning a lot of different softwares. I’m also making a guide with YOLO instructions so that new interns can easily adjust to learning it and working with it.

Having attended Dr. Gale Bishop’s webinar about saving the sea turtles, do you feel more connected to the goal of sea turtle conservation?

  • Diana : I was already quite excited to work on the goal of sea turtle conservation, but I think it was quite helpful to all those who didn't know much to begin with. A lot of the people at the webinar were more interested in AI then marine biology. I knew quite a bit, so they’ve asked me questions like “how do you identify a nest?” and I have helped them. There's a lot of interns that are in college and are trying to get some experience before they jump out into the world. They are quite impressive.

  • Joey: Yes. When I used to hear about sea turtle conservation I thought “Oh that’s good” but after the webinar I realized why conservation is important and why my work of making the process more efficient will be meaningful.

  • Shreya: Definitely. I think hearing about the process of how sea turtles are able to lay their eggs in a structured and protective way was incredibly interesting. Knowing this information made it a lot clearer of what I was actually looking for in the sea turtle tracks. Also, having a description of the process in my head allows me to piece together how the sea turtles lay their eggs and how we can best help them.

What is something from the webinar that stuck out to you or surprised you?

  • Diana: I think it was very cool to see how sea turtle tracks look up close rather than from drone shots. There were so many different pictures of fossils embedded into the ground where old nests were. I think one of the biggest things that I found exciting was a dinosaur imprint right above a sea turtle nest. A dinosaur had at one point stepped on a sea turtle nest. It’s insane. I also loved how Dr.Bishop told us stories of his life.

  • Joey: Similar to the last answer, I originally didn’t know why people were participating in sea turtle conservation. I learned it’s not just walking around and seeing a turtle nest, a lot goes into the process. Also, how fast the sea level is rising really surprised me.

  • Shreya: I was very surprised that there is such a lengthy process to the sea turtles laying their eggs. It is really cool how they leave traces and markings on the beach. Also, I thought it was super cool how there are about 113 eggs for each deposit and that the eggs are hatched using heat from the sun. I was also really surprised that hatchlings came back to the same site 15 years later to lay their eggs. It was also very shocking that only 1 in a 1000 turtles released in the ocean were able to survice and reproduce. One more thing that I found really cool is that the gender of sea turtles are determined by sand temperature rather than genetics.

Is there anything you took away from the webinar that can help you with your current project?

  • Diana: Yes. Dr.Bishops webinar was reall interesting and inspiring. I'm having a bit of trouble with the virtual machine, but I am working on getting training for the specific tracks in our sea turtle project. I’m excited!

  • Joey: My takeaway was more for the Eagle Ray. There is a plateau (Grass Creek Anticline) and you can’t just fly any drone up there. Dr.Bishop thinks many discoveries lay there. It makes more sense why we are optimizing the drone.

  • Shreya: Learning about doomed nests was interesting and I think it’s something else that we can focus on for this project. As Dr.Bishop talked about relocating the doomed nests, I was thinking that this process could be much easier with some type of machine learning software that can pinpoint doomed nests specifically and report back to the conservation agencies to relocate. Another helpful part was seeing the pictures of actual sea turtle nests and the process of relocating them. It became easier to visualize and I further understood the goal of my project.

For more information about the St.Catherines Island Sea Turtle Program visit:

By: Janet Akselrud

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