How do sea turtles survive hurricanes? Scientists track one as she was battered by waves

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An endangered leatherback turtle named Isla, tagged and tracked by researchers in Florida, almost found herself swimming into the path of Hurricane Florence off North Carolina as the storm came ashore, according to scientists with Florida Leatherbacks Inc.

The organization tagged Isla earlier this year, planning to track her as she nested along the Florida coast and migrated north.

Isla ended up just off the North Carolina Outer Banks as Hurricane Florence approached the state in mid-September. “We are tracking a leatherback sea turtle as Hurricane Florence approaches. She appears to be responding to the much larger waves (~14ft) and has begun moving southeast into deeper water,” the organization explained in a tweet.

The next day, Sept. 14, Florida Leatherbacks tweeted that Isla “has stopped moving south and is now about 65 miles off Kitty Hawk North Carolina in 120 ft water. She will be experiencing high surf for the next 48 hours.”

“We’re monitoring where she is right now, and it just happens to be in the middle of a hurricane,” Florida Leatherbacks researcher Kelly Martin told Popular Science as the storm was hitting the Carolinas.

Martin told IFLScience, “Sea turtles evolved with hurricanes so for the most part, they are designed to handle the effects of weather.”

“Often times, the biggest impact we see is to nests that are still incubating on beaches. If a storm causes flooding or beach erosion, this can impact nests,” she told the website.

Marine Turtle Research Group director Kate Mansfield, at the University of Central Florida, told Popular Science she thinks large turtles will dive below the surface to avoid storms.

“I have tracked turtles through some storms in the past and never saw any sort of movement that suggested they were trying to get away from the storm (or that the storms shifted their paths). The turtles I tracked were larger juveniles—at that size they can dive 100s of meters deep,” she explained, according to Popular Science.

After the storm passed, Florida Leatherbacks said on Twitter, Isla moved back to the north and was in the cooler waters off Virginia.

As of Wednesday morning, Isla was just southeast off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, according to Florida Leatherbacks’ tracking page.

Leatherback sea turtles can grow up to 6 feet from its beak to the tip of its tail, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, and they can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. The largest leatherback recorded was almost 10 feet long, according to the organization.

The Conservancy explains that while sea turtles do to come to the surface to breath, they can stay underwater for a couple hours at a time depending on how active they are. In fact, the Conservancy notes, a sleeping turtle could stay under water for four to seven hours.

Leatherbacks are listed as endangered in the United States and have been found from Alaska to the southern tip of South Africa, the Sea Turtle Conservancy notes.

Charles Duncan: 843-626-0301, @duncanreporting