Kimberly Nielsen '10 joins international researchers with the Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program (GTCP)


I have always loved the ocean and growing up in Orange County was the perfect place to submerse myself in nature, from exploring the local tide pools to free diving kelp forests off Laguna Beach. After Rosary, I went on to study Marine Science/Biology at the University of San Diego, including a semester abroad at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. My marine conservation professor was a sea turtle biologist. All of my classmates referred to him as “the crazy turtle dude,” but the enthusiasm he showed in his lectures was infectious and I remember sitting in class thinking that this was the kind of work I could be excited to be a part of too. Since graduating with my degree, I have worked as a marine scientist and research coordinator for sea turtle conservation projects in Costa Rica and at a rescue center in Texas. Sea turtles face numerous threats throughout their life cycle, many as a result of human impacts; because of this, my time spent studying these endangered species solidified my passion for marine conservation. Recently, I said goodbye to California yet again as I was selected to join a small team of international researchers with the Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program (GTCP).

Gnaraloo is located in Western Australia at the southern end of the Ningaloo Reef. This remote stretch of coastline is home to the largest mainland loggerhead rookery in WA, a significant nesting site for the Southeast Indian Ocean population. Since 2008, the goal of the GTCP has been to gather baseline data on the loggerheads, greens, and hawksbills that nest on this beach so that we can work towards preserving them. As a field team, we monitor the females nesting in this rookery, analyze data, write reports, and provide public education through on and off-site presentations and media. This season is particularly exciting because we are initiating two new projects: 1) monitoring sand temperatures along the beach, and 2) deploying satellite tags on ten of the loggerheads nesting in the Gnaraloo Bay Rookery. The data we record with temperature loggers will be used to assess the vulnerability of this rookery to future climate change. Sand temperature plays a critical role in hatchling development and overall nest success, with cooler temperatures producing more male hatchlings, and warmer temperatures producing more females. Furthermore, tracking the loggerheads via satellite will provide us with information on their life history: how often females nest each season, where they go during interesting periods, and where they migrate from Gnaraloo to forage. Because so little is known about this population of sea turtles, all the data we’re collecting with the GTCP can be used to make informed management decisions and work towards conservation – a massive step to understand and protect endangered species.

These experiences in the field have been incredibly diverse, ranging from the tourist atmosphere of South Padre Island, Texas, to the wild jungle beaches of Costa Rica and the outback rookeries of Western Australia. Growing up, I had preconceived ideas about marine biology and conservation work, but in reality, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The truth is that fieldwork is arduous, often frustrating, and full of mosquitos; however, this has been the most rewarding adventure of my life. I’ve learned the importance of perseverance and teamwork in addition to the value of being a part of something you believe in. What continues to pull me back into the field is one resounding fact – no matter what you choose to do in life, one organization, one project, and even one person can make a positive contribution to the world we all share.

To learn more about sea turtle conservation and the GTCP, like the Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program page on Facebook and download the Turtle Tracker app to follow the migration of our tagged loggerheads in real time!

Source: Kimberly Nielsen '10