Okinawa Turtle Spotters​

Okinawa is home to three species of sea turtle: green turtles, hawksbills and loggerheads. All three of these species are endangered. However, research on the population structure of Okinawa’s sea turtles is currently very limited.

Churamura Sea Turtle Conservation aims to change that by creating Japan’s first sea turtle photo identification database.

Named Okinawa Turtle Spotters, this project will create a baseline database of resident and itinerant sea turtles. We can use this baseline to study distribution, population and community structure, migration patterns and habitat use. In time, we will be able to more accurately estimate the Okinawan sea turtle population and to monitor biodiversity and the stability of local populations.


The Turtle Spotters Project - a photo database of Okinawa's sea turtles


Imagine that a turtle is spotted by a group of divers in the blue waters around Okinawa’s coastline. Someone snaps a few photos before the turtle swims away. These photographs hold memories of a majestic animal and an enjoyable dive, but they also capture a record of an individual turtle at a certain time and in a particular place- information that is useful for turtle conservation.


The Okinawa Turtle Spotters project is a great example of “citizen science”. Photo submissions are invited from the general public, including diving instructors, recreational divers and snorkelers and visiting tourists. These photos together with location and other relevant information are collected and entered into the Internet of Turtles database (Wild Me) by the Okinawa Turtle Spotters team.

Once in the database, photos of the scale pattern on the face of the turtle are run through a program to see if there is a match among the turtles already in the database. The Okinawa Turtle Spotters team examines the matches and allocates the turtle an ID, either adding the encounter to a previously-seen turtle or giving the individual a new ID.


Because information about the location of the encounter is added with the photo, the database can be used to answer questions about the occurrence and distribution of individual sea turtles and the different species as a whole.

In the first six months after launching the project, we have already identified 119 individuals in 156 encounters. Several individuals, such as a hawksbill turtle and a green turtle missing a front flipper (pictured), have been spotted multiple times in the same area by different people over the space of a few months. Serious turtle diseases can also be monitored this way. A turtle with fibropapillomatosis, one of the first cases in Okinawa, was reported to Okinawa Turtle Spotters last winter in the southern part of the island.

We are working on collaborations with overseas groups, and this has uncovered interesting connections: a turtle that was found stranded in Okinawa had originally been tagged in Taiwan.

What this means for future sea turtles


Observations around population diversity are only the start. The database will allow us to identify coastal areas which are important to the local sea turtle populations, whether for nesting, foraging, breeding or just resting. Better understanding of this enables more effective conservation, for example by allowing regional governments to make informed decisions about locations for coastal development.


We have compiled the data collected from Okinawa Turtle Spotters into an interactive map where you can see exactly what turtles have been seen off the coast of Okinawa