NOAA Twin Otter Searches for Turtles in the Pacific Northwest

combined image of a NOAA Twin Otter Aircraft and a leatherback turtle swimming in ocean

Researchers recently used NOAA's West Coast Twin Otter aircraft to locate and count leatherback turtles within the boundaries and surrounding waters of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. In addition to the turtles, data was collected on jellyfish (the primary food source for leatherbacks), seabirds, and marine mammals.

The Ocean Service's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries teamed up with the National Marine Fisheries Service this Fall to survey large swaths of ocean in the Pacific Northwest from the air.

Erin LaCasella, a researcher with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center's Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment Program, reviews data during a Twin Otter flight over the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

The aerial surveys—conducted with NOAA's Twin Otter aircraft— located and gauged the population of leatherback turtles and other important living marine resources within the boundaries and surrounding waters of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

The waters of the Olympic Coast sanctuary and northern Oregon are proposed critical habitat for the leatherbacks, which can grow to more than 6 feet in length and weigh 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms). Leatherbacks continue to thrive in Atlantic waters, but not in the Pacific.

"The population in the Pacific has declined dramatically over the last 20 years," said Scott Benson, Fisheries Service Principle Investigator for Pacific leatherback turtle ecology and assessment. "We're just beginning to learn some things about this animal even though it's been on the planet for 70 million years."

The waters of the Olympic Coast sanctuary and northern Oregon are proposed critical habitat for the leatherbacks, which can grow to more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length and weigh 1,000 pound (454 kilograms).

Benson said that replicating the survey over multiple years in various oceanographic conditions will be required to determine leatherback abundance and distribution in this dynamic ecosystem and the variability of their jellyfish prey.

The data collected during the West Coast survey will not only inform scientists about leatherbacks, but also help sanctuary scientists and managers monitor long-term trends and changes to other critical sanctuary resources.

National marine sanctuaries use aircraft for surveying marine resources, visitors, and vessel use. Aircraft are also used for remote sensing, enforcement, and emergency response. The Twin Otter has been stationed on the West Coast since 2009 to support regional NOAA programs such as the leatherback survey.

For more information:

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary | National Marine Fisheries Service | NOAA's DeHavilland Twin Otter (DHC-6) aircraft | NOAA's Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment Program | National Marine Sanctuaries