By Jeff Hampton The Virginian-Pilot August 17, 2014
Britta Muiznieks, a biologist with the National Park Service, fastened the cable together, placed the joint within a small bottle and then enclosed it within a plastic pipe jutting above the sand near sea turtle nest No. 36.
The cable runs under the sand to a sensor housed within a case that looks like a ping-pong ball, closely matching the turtle eggs buried with it. The device sends temperature and movement signals to a cellphone circuit board in the plastic pipe that in turn transmits the data to a computer server in California.
It’s a high-tech system, homemade from simple components, that could have far-reaching benefits.
“One day, we will be able to predict when nests hatch,” Muiznieks said.
Forecasting a hatch could shorten the period – to a few days from the current month or more – that park staff must cordon off the beach from vehicles, she said. The public could be invited to watch a “boil,” the moment when roughly a hundred baby turtles emerge from the sand and crawl to the surf. Biologists would not have to spend as much time monitoring the nests.
For now, park rangers patrol the beach daily from May through Sept. 15, finding where mother turtles crawled ashore to lay eggs, and marking the area with signs.
The hatch occurs about 62 days later. Rangers close off the beach, from nest to surf, starting about day 50.
“We are required to protect the resource,” Muiznieks said.
The sensor experiment had its beginnings five years ago when Eric Kaplan bought a house in Frisco with his family after selling his technology business in Charlottesville. He wanted to be part of solving local issues, including the conflict between beach drivers and preservationists.
“I was taken aback by the sea-turtle nest management,” said Kaplan, who founded the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, a nonprofit aimed at enhancing the local economy while protecting the ecology. “Why use 1950s technology to solve a 2010 problem? Right away, I knew there had to be a better way.”
He contacted childhood friend Tom Zimmerman, who worked at IBM in San Jose, Calif. With the blessing of IBM, Zimmerman spent hours developing the sensor, at first using a cellphone circuit board. He contacted his college friend Sam Wantman, a retired software engineer, to continue the work.
The team developed the technology, which is able to withstand the elements, and began tests late last summer.
“It’s really hard to simulate the Hatteras environment at a lab at IBM or in an apartment in San Francisco,” Kaplan said.
At first, the plastic pipe guarding the electronics was black. That got too hot under the Outer Banks sun and they switch to white, Kaplan said.
The research and development so far would normally cost hundreds of thousands, Wantman said. The team – Wantman founded Nerds Without Borders to attract other experts to the project – has done it all for free.
Grants and funds from the Park Service paid for the equipment.
As of Friday, 118 turtle nests were marked on Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches. Muiznieks has placed sensors in 20 of the nests this year.
Wantman spends much of his time looking at temperatures and motion signals. On Aug. 7, he saw a flood of data. He sent a note to Muiznieks that something big was going on.
The nest hatched two days later.
The delay between heavy movement and calm just before hatching raised questions.
“How does turtle No. 1 know to come out of the nest at the same time as turtle No. 100?” Kaplan said.
The theory is that the turtles begin hatching, crawl above the empty eggs without breaking the surface and wait until it is certain that all or almost all are ready to emerge.
Kaplan compared it to waiting for the last pop in a bag of popcorn.
“We’re pretty excited about this,” he said.
The team hopes to set up automatic data analysis and better match the long-distance signals to what is happening in a turtle nest on a Hatteras beach. Muiznieks has mounted infrared cameras in buckets adjacent to some of the monitored nests.
The turtles know when to go. Cellphone technology and ping-pong ball sensors could help their protectors know, too.