SEA Days: Turtle Tracking

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

With the recent adoption of our Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is excited to host a turtle expert for our March SEA Days! With more than ten years of marine turtle experience, Sheila Madrak is a conservation biologist interested in studying the movement of marine vertebrates. Her current research focuses on Green Sea Turtles and the effect of warm water on their movement throughout the San Diego Bay. Below, Sheila answers some questions about her experience and her best advice for future scientists.

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Sheila Madrak is a conservation biologist interested in studying the movement of marine vertebrates (NMFS Permit #1591).

Where did you go to school?

I completed my BS in Animal Science at the University of Vermont, my MS in Biological Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, and I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Joint Doctoral Program in Ecology through San Diego State University and University of California, Davis

What is your area of research?

I study conservation ecology and behavior. I am specifically interested in movement behavior in mobile marine vertebrates. I have studied marine turtles for over ten years.

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

I was inspired to become involved in marine science by spending every summer at the beach in Ocean City, NJ and Cape Hatteras, NC. I have always loved animals and the ocean. I first learned about marine turtles through childhood visits to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, NJ. At the MMSC, I learned about the human impacts on marine turtles and other marine megafauna. I developed a desire to make a difference!

 What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

First and foremost, determination! I think if you are determined enough, you can accomplish any goal – big or small. Becoming a scientist requires many years of education and training. It is certainly not a career that happens overnight. But the persistence pays off through the experiences of working in a dynamic and hands-on field. 

Why is your research topic important?

For my dissertation research, I have monitored movement of Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) in San Diego Bay as related to water temperature. San Diego Bay is home to a foraging population of East Pacific Green Turtles. It is near the northernmost extent of the range for these turtles and the Bay has high human use and effects of that use. Until December 31, 2010, a fossil-fuel based power plant operated in the South Bay region of San Diego Bay and released warm water effluent into the environment. Green turtles were shown to aggregate near this warm water in an area we referred to as the “jacuzzi.” My research monitored if/how green turtle distribution and dive behavior changed in response to the loss of warm water effluent in the Bay.

 What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

I will be bringing the telemetry equipment that I used to track and monitor Green Turtle movement in San Diego Bay.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

The best way to get involved in ecology is to start my seeking out an internship that can provide you with hands-on experience in the field you are interested in. Explore different paths, make contacts with people in the field, and pursue an education—start general (Biology, Ecology, etc) and become more focused as you move forward with your education.

 What is your favorite ocean organism?

My favorite ocean organism is probably the narwhal! Narwhals are incredible and unique marine mammals. The Narwhals are a medium-sized toothed whale that lives in Arctic waters and has a large tusk-like enlarged tooth that protrudes from their heads and is believed to be a sensory organ.

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Join us on Saturday, March 21 for SEA Days: Turtle Tracking—there’s something for everyone!

SEA Days are 11 a.m–3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

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SEA you there!

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego