Document Type



Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Publication Date



Ecological Indicators



First Page


Last Page



Sea turtle strandings provide important mortality information, yet knowledge of turtle carcass at-sea drift and decomposition characteristics are needed to better understand and manage where these mortalities occur. We used empirical sea turtle carcass decomposition and drift experiments in the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, USA to estimate probable carcass oceanic drift times and quantify the impact of direct wind forcing on carcass drift. Based on the time period during which free-floating turtle carcasses tethered nearshore were buoyant, we determined that oceanic drift duration of turtle carcasses was highly dependent on water temperature and varied from 2 to 15 days during typical late spring to early fall Bay water conditions. The importance of direct wind forcing for turtle carcass drift was assessed based on track divergence rates from multiple simultaneous deployments of three types of surface drifters: bucket drifters, artificial turtles and turtle carcass drifters. Turtle drift along-wind leeway was found to vary from 1 to 4% of wind speed, representing an added drift velocity of approximately 0.03–0.1 m/s for typical Bay wind conditions. This is comparable to current speeds in the Bay (0.1–0.2 m/s), suggesting wind is important for carcass drift. Estimated carcass drift parameters were integrated into a Chesapeake Bay oceanographic drift model to predict carcass drift to terrestrial stranding locations. Increased drift duration (e.g., due to low temperatures) increases mean distance between expected mortality events and stranding locations, as well as decreases overall likelihood of retention in the Bay. Probable mortality hotspots for the peak month of strandings (June) were identified off coastal southeastern Virginia and within the lower Bay, including the Bay mouth and lower James River. Overall, results support that sea turtle drift time is quite variable, and varies greatly depending on water and air temperature as well as oceanic conditions. Knowledge of these parameters will improve our ability to interpret stranding events around the globe.




Sea turtle strandings, Sea turtle mortality, Chesapeake bay, Carcass decomposition, Drift leeway, Drift simulations, Endangered species, Conservation

Appendix.pdf (477 kB)
Figures_B&W.pptx (5980 kB)