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Teacher at Sea Shows Us the Science Behind Leatherback Sea Turtles


Alex Eilers photographs a leatherback sea turtle surfacing. 

Elier's Science at Sea

  • We collected abiotic oceanographic data and water samples containing nutrient data to characterize the foraging habitats of the leatherback turtle to help determine what and how the turtles were eating.

  • We conducted net tow samples to characterize the jellyfish species prevalent in the turtle diet, which include moon jellies, sea nettles, and egg yolk jellies.

  • We tracked the turtles via air surveillance and handheld antenna.

  • We tagged the turtles with a temporary suction cup transmitter to reveal the turtles foraging and diving behavior.



Part of Alex Eilers' exhibit included different types of careers available on a NOAA ship. 

More About Teacher At Sea

This year, 29 teachers from across the country set out to sea to work and live alongside NOAA scientists through NOAA Teacher at Sea—a program that bridges science with education. In its 22nd year, the program has provided more than 600 teachers hands-on marine research experiences varying from fish surveys in Alaskan waters to atmospheric research in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Upon return, the teachers bring their greater understanding and excitement back to the classroom,  giving their students a glimpse into a scientific world that is otherwise inaccessible. 

To meet all 29 teachers of the 2012 season and follow their adventures on research cruises, visit their blogs  at the NOAA Teacher at Sea website

November 26, 2012

Are you crazy about sea turtles? NOAA Teacher at Sea Alex Eilers is, especially the leatherback. Eilers is an educator at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, and she had an opportunity to sail on the NOAA Ship David Starr Jordan where she helped scientists conduct leatherback turtle research in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. She shared some highlights of her journey with us. 

Tell us about the leatherback turtle research you did with NOAA scientists at sea.
In 2008, I had the pleasure of working with scientists from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center aboard NOAA Ship David Starr Jordan and participated in the Leatherback Use of Temperate Habitat 
(LUTH) research cruise. This project was led by Chief Scientist Scott Benson and aimed to characterize the oceanographic conditions that define the leatherback foraging habitat within the offshore areas of central California, a known foraging hotspot. We took oceanographic samples along with aerial surveys.

What was the best part of your journey?
During my second week at sea we hit the jackpot: we found three leatherback sea turtles. That week was all about turtles. From identifying the biotic and abiotic conditions that define leatherback turtle habitat and foraging grounds, to tracking and tagging, we did it all!

How did you integrate your experience into the classroom?
As an informal educator, I had the opportunity to integrate my experience in a number of ways. I created a mini-exhibit at the Pink Palace Museum 
which highlighted the expedition. The focus was on leatherbacks, scientists, long-line sword fishing, and other animals. We also highlighted 
information about what NOAA’s Office of Law  Enforcement was doing to 
protect sea turtles. 

I created lab and classroom curriculum programming as well as home school curriculum programming. I integrated my journaling with this 
curriculum to teach students about sea turtles and the ocean.


After returning from sea, Alex Eilers set up an exhibit at the Pink 
Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

How have you shared the science that you learned? 
Before, during, and after my LUTH research cruise, I kept a log to share my experience with school students and the public. Then, in January and February of 2012, I continued my research-based professional development experience by participating in PolarTREC on a team studying Weddell seals in the Ross Sea. The students I worked with were amazed with it all: the leatherbacks, the jellyfish, and the birds. Most of all, these students were given the opportunity to experience the ocean. Many of them had never seen the ocean before.


Leatherback sea turtle. See more photos here.