Aerial survey of Turtles feeding on seagrass

Launching the plane

We were fortunate enough to get a visit from Marjolijn Christianen a PHD student from the Netherlands who brought us a lovely toy to play with.  The remote controlled drone aircraft takes great pictures of turtles on the seagrass beds around the island.  We managed to fly the plane twice at high tide once on Pom Pom and once on Pandanan.

There were more turtles on the seagrass bed at Pandanan than at Pom Pom which is surprising but nice news that we need to verify.  The provisional results were that some patches of seagrass had at least one turtle in a tennis court sized area. The final count will need detailed analysis of the photos but provisionally we estimate that there were 50-100 turtles feeding on the seagrass during each high tide.  That is a lot and it makes the turtle population in the North Eastern Semporna Islands very significant.  Hopefully we will be able to get more data both by plane and by boat surveys with the volunteer divers during 2012.

Having proven that the technique works all we need now is enough funds to buy our own drone or hire Marjolijn to come and lead a comprehensive turtle survey in the Semporna area.

The drone in the air

The drone plane is definitely an excellent way to get a real turtle population estimate and we can see a great management use for it to monitor actual turtle numbers both monthly and annually.  Since the size and in some cases sex of the turtles can be determined from the photographs a great deal of population information can be collected both quickly and without interfering with the turtles.


We are very grateful to Celebes Beach resort for providing such excellent staff.  Claus and Peter were superb at catching the plane before it landed in the sea.  Thanks to the quick reflexes the plane stayed dry and disaster was averted.

One of the turtles visible from the plane on Pom Pom Island.


  1. […] Pandanan). Steve Oakley and Celebes Beach resort were so kind to host me on Pom Pom Island. Read the blog post by Steve Oakley on our work here, also if you are looking for a student project on turtles. High densities on the seagrass here! But […]

  2. Keeyen Pang says:

    I am a radio control airplane hobbyist and the remote control drone aircraft is quite simple and the required hardware and software are ready available. I think we can take much better resolution picture than the picture you show. Let me know if we can volunteer to take low altitude picture/video for your project.

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