In a turtle’s tummy

2014_10_17As I’ve mentioned before, we get a lot of interesting things in the mail at our office. We just received this specimen bag from our colleagues at Atlantic Veterinary College. It is from the necropsy (autopsy) of one of the entangled leatherbacks from earlier this month. The specimen is a brown plastic lid that is about 6 cm (2.5 inches) in diameter.

This lid was in the turtle’s stomach. The turtle had also eaten a small plastic bag, which we found nestled inside this cap during the necropsy.

A sea turtle can’t digest a plastic lid or a plastic bag. Plastics sit–until the turtle’s death–in its digestive tract.

Neither the plastic bag nor the lid was the cause of death for this particular leatherback, but it was sobering to find them.

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Asha is out!

In great news, Asha has left Cape Cod Bay! This is her track as of this morning. Many thanks to our colleagues in the Cape Cod area who were helping keep watch for her. Can’t wait to see where she goes now!Asha_Last20days_LC1-3_Oct16

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Migration situation

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It looks like Christie and Beverly are going to head out of Canadian waters soon.

Christie has been keeping us guessing a little bit. We had expected her to leave the Gulf of St. Lawrence about ten days ago. But she’s made her way around the northern tip of Cape Breton Island now and is off. Beverly, who has been spending her days off Newfoundland looks as though she, too, has begun to head offshore and I think will swing south now.

Asha is still a cause for worry. We still nervously check up on her positions several times a day hoping that she is not entangled in Cape Cod Bay, where she seems insistent on staying for now.

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Asha on our minds

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Asha is worrying us big time. She is in a very dangerous spot for leatherbacks these days: Cape Cod Bay. It is dense with lobster trap lines at this time of year. Mike James, our sea turtle scientist, is keeping our colleagues in New England updated so they know where Asha is. We are all closely watching her track in case the satellite transmissions begin to indicate that she has stopped moving and might be entangled.

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Search and find: Virginia Beach edition

One of the satellite tags (not the kind we follow online) used on loggerhead turtles tagged off Nova Scotia this summer fell off a turtle and was floating in the water.

We wanted to get it back. It contains information that will be useful and if it’s in reasonable condition, it can be deployed again on another turtle. Finding a small piece of floating equipment in the ocean is a tall order. Fortunately, the tag was transmitting information about its approximate location (within a few kilometers).

Canadian sea turtle scientist Mike James has been tracking the tag’s location as it drifted south from where it first came off a month ago at about the latitude of Rhode Island, USA. The battery was draining and he knew that the tag wouldn’t continue to transmit for much longer. He watched it as it meandered sometimes close to shore, sometimes kilometers off shore, most recently tossed in the currents in the approaches to Chesapeake Bay.

And then, the tag washed ashore Tuesday night at False Cape State Park in Virginia! Thrilled, Mike called the park manager, Kyle Barbour.

“I could see on Google Earth that the tag seemed to have lodged itself not far from some kind of building,” said Mike. “And on the other end of the phone, Kyle says, ‘I’m sitting in that building right now!’”

Kyle and his team at False Cape as well as volunteers from the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Program spent hours searching for the tag. False Cape is a remote wilderness park that preserves one of the last stretches of undeveloped American Atlantic coastline. The chief difficulty the search teams struggled with was the considerable amount of marine debris along the beach. They had to carefully comb through tangles of garbage and seaweed as they looked for the tag.

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Virginia Aquarium Stranding Team intern Christina Lavin (left) and Stranding Team volunteer Kelly Bushnell holding the tag. Kelly was the person who ultimately found it!

And just a few minutes ago, Sue Barco, senior scientist at the Aquarium, called me to say they had the tag!

We are really excited here about this amazing find. Sue was equally delighted. “We have a marine turtle program, too,” she said. “We know the value of these tags.”

It takes a lot to make sea turtle science work. I’m always so excited and happy when people from different countries come together in these situations. So, this afternoon, our thanks to our new friends in Virginia from False Cape and the Aquarium—who dropped everything in their busy days to help us!

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Hello, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and New England!

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When we first started studying leatherbacks in Canadian waters, the hypothesis was that if the turtles were here in any numbers at all (and—as funny as it seems now, at the time, that was a big if!), then they followed a particular corridor. From a conservation standpoint, following a corridor would have made our lives much easier. If the turtles use a narrow band of ocean, it is ostensibly simpler to protect their habitat.

But what our satellite tracking research has shown over the years is that turtles make broad use of the ocean, their track lines crisscrossing one another like noodles on a plate of spaghetti. The turtles we’re tracking this year are wonderful examples of what makes our work so interesting (and challenging). Each turtle is doing something different.

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Back on track

The sea turtle field season, which has just ended, is our most exciting time. It is also our busiest. For two months we work weekdays and weekends with lots of long hours. By the end we are tired…but still always sorry it’s over.

I had hoped to write more often over the summer, but I fell behind. Instead, I’ll fill you in on tales from the field over the next few weeks.

First, of course, is what is up with Beverly. If you look at the map below, you’ll see that she’s been joined by two other turtles: Asha and Christie whom we tagged the first week of August.

Here is a map of the three tracks on August 8.

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Here it is a bit closer up.

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And here is where the turtles are today.

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This is what Asha looks like.

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We weighed her, and she came in at just over 400 kilograms (almost 900 pounds). Her curved carapace length or CCL (the length over the curve of her top shell) was 158.4 cm. We don’t know where Asha is from, and we don’t know whether or not she’ll nest this season. She’s our mystery turtle for this year.

And this is Christie.

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When we found Christie, she was pretty scraped up. We’re not sure from what exactly. We weren’t able to weigh her, but she measured 159.2 CCL. Just a smidge bigger than Asha. Like Beverly, Christie is also a Trinidad turtle. She’s due to nest again this spring, which is exciting. She’s nested both at Matura Beach and at Grande Rivière in past years.

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Meet Beverly

It has been a slow leatherback season so far. Lots of turtle-less days on the water. So we are thrilled to tell you that we have now satellite tagged Beverly!

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She is a female leatherback and she had flipper tags from Trinidad. We checked with Kyle at the Nature Seekers and they last saw Beverly nesting in Trinidad in 2013. That means there is a good chance she’ll nest again this coming spring. If that is the case, hopefully she’ll be found by our friends in Trinidad. If so, we’ll get her satellite transmitter back.

This map shows how far Beverly has to swim between Nova Scotia and Trinidad. Beverly’s position is marked with the red dot. Trinidad is off the northeast tip of South America and is circled in black.

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But it’ll be more than a month before Beverly starts her trek south. At the moment, we’re really interested in how she is traveling in Canada. We find her track extremely interesting because she is hugging the coast of Nova Scotia. Although we expected her to continue to head up toward Cape Breton Island, it is unusual to see a turtle swimming quite so close to shore. This map shows you what I mean.

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Wind

This is the time of year when we obsess about the wind. Our greetings to one another in person or over the phone—and in texts several times a day—are invariably, “Hey! What’s it calling for?”

I suppose when we are in field mode, the state of the wind correlates to our state of mind: Light winds make us happy. Gusty weather frustrates us.

In order to find leatherbacks at sea, you need “flat calm” weather—a condition some of the fishermen we know describe more memorably as “piss on a platter.”

That kind of sea makes it easier to find the head of a leatherback poking out of the water. This is a picture from a perfect weather day.

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This is what it looks like on an “okay” day—much harder to pick out the leatherback, particularly from a distance. As the ocean becomes choppier, it becomes harder to determine from far away what is a wave turning over on itself and what is the dark flash of a leatherback head.

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Of course, we don’t go out in really rough weather. Not only would it be too difficult to find the animals, it would be impossible to work with them because of their size.

Tomorrow it’s calling for lightish winds in the morning. If that doesn’t change, our field team will be out for Day 1 of the season. (I will be here in the office. I don’t usually head out on the boat until August.) Devan, our turtle technician, left the office a few minutes ago to sort out some field equipment.

“Maybe I won’t see you tomorrow!” he called, as he headed toward the door. And then, cheerfully, “Maybe I won’t see you for a long time!”

“What’s it calling for?”

“Weekend looks really good and into next week.”

Excellent news.

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Trinidad—Last Day

No CAN turtle. Not on Grande Rivière and not on Matura—despite lots of effort looking. It reminds me how lucky we were to come across Peggy last year. The film crew from NHK has left Suzan’s Guest House. We’ll see them again up at our Cape Breton field site in August.

It never really occurred to me that we wouldn’t find our CAN turtle to satellite tag. I knew it wasn’t a guarantee, but I thought it would happen because it would have been a good thing—it would have given us important scientific data. I thought it would happen because we tried hard—because we wanted it to.

I know that nature doesn’t work that way. It’s part of what I love about the environment and humans’ relationship with it. But it’s still incredibly frustrating!

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Mike and Kyle

“We know we’ll find her when you leave!” laughed Kyle Mitchell, one of the Nature Seekers. He manages their database, and is the person who sends us information on the CAN turtles they find at Matura. He knows how excited we get when he emails. (Mike, in particular, greets each new tag recovery with incredible enthusiasm—as though someone is calling with news about an old friend.)

On our last afternoon in Trinidad—after hours and hours of hiking each night—Scott said, “And for fun, let’s go hiking!”

He brought us on a trail through the jungle.

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(“I always hope I’ll see a bushmaster on this trail,” Scott said to me as we walked. “They are so cool.” I knew Mike would be equally pleased. I, however, had my fingers crossed that the big venomous pit viper would stay away.)

It was a beautiful hike down a path mostly marked by the large, twisting roots of trees. The trail ended at a waterfall that crashed into a green-blue pool. Devan, Mike, Scott and I were the only people there.

I followed along the yellow rope tied across the pool to help swimmers brace themselves against the power of the waterfall. I held myself under it as it drenched my face and roared in my ears. Then I floated on my back, letting its current push me away. I watched the sky. The sunlight slipped down through the layers of leaves high above me—some wispy, some shiny green, some slatted like blinds. I watched their patterns shifting in the breeze.

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