10/20/2015 Peter Durantine

Initiative: Diving for Sea Turtles, Launching a Career

On board a tuna boat, doing double duty as a research vessel 75 miles off the coast of California, Franklin & Marshall College senior Matthew Steinwurtzel and his fellow researchers spotted the large reptile they had been pursuing for two days.

A rare sight in that region of the Pacific, the loggerhead sea turtle could be captured in one of two ways: by net or by diving into the vast blue to "wrangle" it, much like a cowboy would a steer, the environmental science major said, recalling the adventure from his summer-long independent research project.

Ecologist Tomo Eguchi, the lead researcher, gripped a net and stood on deck. He turned to Steinwurtzel and told him, "Suit up! You're going to go if I miss with the net." A startled Steinwurtzel climbed into his wetsuit, thinking, "OK, I'm not sure what's about to happen right now."

Eguchi threw the net and missed. Steinwurtzel immediately did a "swan dive" off the bow of the boat and landed on the turtle. Instinctively, the loggerhead dived, Steinwurtzel still grasping the reptile's shell with one hand.

"I'm getting dragged down with the turtle, and at some point I realize, 'OK, I'm going to run out of oxygen," Steinwurtzel said. "I let go."

As he started his upward swim, so did the turtle, which also needed air. They broke the surface at the same time. Steinwurtzel, as fast as his legs could move him, swam hard after the loggerhead and captured him a quarter-mile from the boat.

"'I got him! I got him!''' Steinwurtzel recalled shouting out. "And everyone is on the boat cheering."

  • Back in the research vessel, Steinwurtzel, in black cap and beard, helps with tagging the loggerhead sea turtle for satellite monitoring. (Image taken under NMFS Permit # 14510) Image Credit: Ralph Pace

Jeffrey Seminoff, a marine ecologist and leader of the Marine Turtle Ecology & Assessment Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, named the turtle Matteo. He wanted to honor the Bonchek College House resident for being the first human to make contact with a loggerhead off the California coast.

"By capturing that turtle, we were able to attach a satellite transmitter and have been tracking its movements for more than three months now," Seminoff said. "The data are huge for helping us minimize the impact of commercial fishing on endangered sea turtles."

Steinwurtzel's research experience, which he presented in a paper this fall, was the culmination of work he launched as a senior in high school. He had applied for and received a grant to conduct a sea-turtle analysis for National Geographic at the organization's Washington, D.C., headquarters.

"I've always had a profound interest in marine studies," he said. "Particularly with marine turtles and their demography, biology, and the way they interact in their marine environment."

As a first-year student, Steinwurtzel volunteered at EarthWatch Institute in the Caribbean, studying leatherback sea turtles, the largest of the world's seven species of sea turtles — and one of the oldest. Leatherbacks have been around since the Late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago, and like loggerheads, are among the several turtle species on the endangered list.

As a sophomore, Steinwurtzel volunteered as a field research assistant with Seminoff on NOAA's study of green sea turtles foraging in San Diego Bay. He took blood and tissue samples, then tagged the creatures for monitoring.

"We were out in the boat from noon to midnight or from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.," Steinwurtzel said.  "It all depended on how many turtles we caught and where we were capturing them."

Last summer, Steinwurtzel was asked to return to La Jolla to study stable isotope ecology in sea turtles. He proposed a summer research internship for credit to F&M's Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Elizabeth De Santo, who supervised his project, funded through a Huffnagle Scholarship.

"Matt drafted a proposal that included the protocols he would follow working with the turtles," De Santo said. "The internship experience gave him insights not only into the rigors of field-based research, but also about careers in government science."

Within F&M's Earth & Environment Department, marine conservation — which De Santo teaches — is a growing theme. Students have recently undertaken independent studies under her supervision on deep-sea mining, marine genetic biotechnology, and seafood eco-labels. De Santo is also teaching a new course on Marine Protected Areas this spring.

At NOAA's research labs in La Jolla, Steinwurtzel displayed exceptional research skills from day one, according to Seminoff.

"Matt quickly became an integral member of our research team, helping to write research reports and conducting field captures," Seminoff said. "He has wonderful passion for marine biology and sea-turtle research."

Steinwurtzel said he sees himself working at the intersection of science and government.

"I'd like to conduct more field research," he said. "And I'd like to advocate more for my research and how it affects policy and legislation, nationally and internationally."

  • As a volunteer field research assistant, Steinwurtzel examines a green sea turtle as part of a NOAA study on turtles foraging in San Diego Bay. (Image taken under NMFS Permit # 14510) Image Credit: Ralph Pace
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