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(FloridaToday.com) - The nation's first satellite-tracked leatherback sea turtle just keeps coming back.

"Oh, oh, oh ohoo little China girl," goes theDavie Bowie tune that is her namesake.

She's anything but little. And she sure digs Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.

Biologists first spotted the seven foot-long, 850-pound leatherback 20 years ago at Archie Carr.

After a three-year hiatus from the refuge, researchers this month have seen China Girl turn up twice already — most recently on Wednesday — to dig nests at the refuge. More may be on the way. Leatherbacks lay eggs about once every 10 days.

"She's just about the biggest leatherback that we've seen on the Carr refuge beach," said Llew Ehrhart, professor emeritus at University of Central Florida.

Ehrhart and his students first spotted the leatherback nesting in the refuge in June 1994. That same year, University of Central Florida biologist Dean Bagley nicknamed the turtle after the David Bowie song. Three Chinese biologists had been visiting Archie Carr at the time.

China Girl's since been spotted at the refuge 38 times in 20 years, giving biologists one of the few long-term glimpses into the travel and nesting habits of the elusive species.

Leatherbacks have traditionally been difficult for scientists to monitor because of the turtle's low numbers and the difficulty in attaching a tracking device to the soft shells.

After nesting season, leatherbacks were long thought to migrate far offshore.

But in 2000, China Girl was the first leatherback to be tracked by satellite along the coastal United States.

Her habit of hugging so close to the coast, ostensibly in search of jellyfish and other food, bucked what biologists thought they knew about the species' migration.

The transmitter ultimately corroded and dropped off after about a year.

Now they identify her by the identification number on a metal tag on her flipper.

The turtles are thought to nest every other year.

When only two leatherbacks came to the Central Florida coast during the 1980s, most researchers predicted the species would soon go extinct.

Now, they can't get enough of China Girl.

"It's a great story," Ehrhart said of the 20-year record he and his students have kept of China Girl's nesting — a rarity in marine turtle research. "There can't be very many records like this."

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663 or jwaymer@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter @JWayEnviro

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