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!

Mike and Kyle

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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Trinidad Day 5

Tonight we went to Grande Rivière, the beach where Margaret nested. It is a two-hour drive up the winding Toco Main Road from Matura. It took us a little longer on the way there. We were running low on diesel for Scott’s truck. They had run out of fuel at the gas station up at Toco, so we had to start our trip by going in the opposite direction—half an hour down to Valencia and then back again.

We were excited to go and meet the team that found Margaret and to see Margaret’s beach. “The turtles love Grande Rivière!” one of the beach monitoring team called out to me. Indeed. Sometimes there are a hundred leatherbacks at a time. A hundred at a time.

The beach is only about a kilometre long. This means the density of animals is incredible—turtles nesting on top of each other’s nests, digging up each other’s eggs—turtles trying to climb over each other—turtles everywhere. There are resorts and homes that are close to the beach at Grande Rivière, too. I watched one leatherback crawl under a child’s swing and into someone’s backyard to nest!

But the most incredible thing we saw was this:

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Look carefully just to the right of the turtle’s flipper. You can see the bottom of the sword. Then follow straight up to see where the shaft comes out. There are barnacles clinging to the top, which can make it hard to find in the photograph at first.

 

It is a leatherback nesting with the sword from a billfish slammed straight through its body.

It would have been something to see—the fish—likely a swordfish or marlin—slashing its sword through the water to stun the smaller prey fish around it, then somehow, mistakenly, driving that sword (with clearly incredible force) through the leatherback. And then the fish becoming stuck in the turtle. So stuck that its sword broke off.

Wow.

And the leatherback turtle survived. (The fish likely did not.) Not only did she survive, but here she was, nesting.

“We’re going to take that right out,” said Scott cheerfully, as Devan, Mike and I stood, shocked, by the turtle. “I’ve seen this once before.” Scott promptly dug his Leatherman tool from his backpack, clamped onto the sword, and heaved upward. The sword came out. There was almost no blood—just a nasty smell. The leatherback’s body had encased the sword in a kind of sleeve. Sealed it off. We could look deep into the tunnel it left behind.

“That should close right up,” said Scott. “I’m going to bleach this. We’ll send it out to some billfish folks and figure out what kind of sword it is.”

This is Scott holding the sword just after he's taken it out.

This is Scott holding the sword just after he’s taken it out.

The sword rattled around in the back of the truck on the way home. (It was way too stinky to have in the cab with us. As we made the sharp turns back down the road, it nudged up along Devan’s backpack in the truck bed. He had to wash his bag three times to get the smell out.)

This is a photograph of Nivon, one of the Nature Seekers, sitting out front at Suzan’s Guest House back in Matura. Scott had the sword soaking in a bleach solution all day. Nivon held the cleaned sword and turned it over and over in his hands while Scott told him the story. “These leatherbacks are amazing creatures,” he said—first in wonder—and then in triumph. “Amazing creatures!”

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Trinidad Day 4

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I took these photographs of a group of hatchlings we found on an afternoon walk on Matura Beach the next day.

My friend Francis from the Nature Seekers brought me hatchlings to see.

He met us at the bottom of the road to the beach in the dark at the start of the night. He motioned for me with a grin. He was holding two of them. They had just scrambled from a nest a ways down the beach.

He knew I had never seen a hatchling before. All the leatherbacks in Canada are mature—or almost mature—adults. We measure their size by the length of their carapace (top shell), and the leatherbacks I see off Nova Scotia have carapace lengths of at least 130 cm.

These gorgeous little leatherbacks fit in the palm of my hand. I could feel as I held them gently between my fingers their fine body structures: the rib cage expanding and contracting, the delicate bones in the flippers.

Many hours later—around 2:30 in the morning—I was alone walking a stretch of beach and deep in a pit in the sand was one little hatchling. I couldn’t see any other hatchlings around, so this one must have been a straggler. It was trying to climb out of the pit—and it had many metres to go to the sea beyond it.

I picked it up and brought it closer to the shoreline—still so it would have a run of beach before it hit the water—but closer. I was amazed to watch how quickly it moved once it was on relatively flat ground, pulled forward by its elegant front flippers.

We still didn’t find the CAN turtle. Eight more hours of searching.

But oh, the hatchlings!

Climbing up over the uneven beach to the sea.

Climbing up over the uneven beach to the sea.

Made it!

Made it!

Me (Kathleen Martin) with a hatchling leatherback.

Me (Kathleen Martin) with a hatchling leatherback.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trinidad Day 3

Canadian sea turtle team on the beach! Dr. Mike James and Devan Archibald at Matura in the late afternoon.

Canadian sea turtle team on the beach! Dr. Mike James and Devan Archibald at Matura in the late afternoon.

 

Tracks made by leatherbacks nesting the night before crisscross Matura Beach.

Tracks made by leatherbacks nesting the night before crisscross Matura Beach.

 

Sargassum carpeting swaths of Matura Beach.

Sargassum carpeting swaths of Matura Beach.

Walking across Matura Beach is like walking through drifted snow. You never know how far your feet will sink below you as you climb the uneven ground. In the pitch darkness of night, we fall down like kids.

The mounds of sand are records of big leatherbacks nesting. The turtles use their front flippers to create a body pit in the ground and then later to disguise their nest by throwing sand in all directions around them.

This year, Matura is covered in dense, black sargassum, broken off from the Sargasso Sea. It lays over the white sand beach in endless pillowy clumps. It reminds me of peat moss.

The only reliably flat place is in the hard-packed sand right by the water. There, however, even in places that seem above the tidemark, the ever-shifting waves can unexpectedly douse your sneakers.

We walked back and forth across several kilometers of beach, checking every leatherback we saw for Canadian flipper tags with no luck. According to our records and the nesting records the Nature Seekers have, there should have been a few Canadian turtles on the beach last night.

We looked for eight hours straight, stopping briefly under the stars for the delicious banana bread that Erica in the Guest House kitchen sent with us for a snack. We drove home finally at about 4 a.m.

Maybe tomorrow.

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Trinidad, Day 2

[Note: We had inconsistent Internet access while we were in Trinidad, so I was unable to upload my blog posts. I will run them a day at a time this week instead.]

 

We saw dozens of turtles last night. It was amazing.

At one point I stood near the edge of the water in the darkness with three enormous leatherbacks emerging from the surf around me simultaneously. The white roiling water swept over the black masses of their bodies as they inched their way slowly up the beach.

I was alone at that moment. Devan, Mike and Scott were walking further down the beach looking for turtles.

I had to will myself to stand there in the starlight.

I was overwhelmed.

Leatherbacks have been doing this for millions of years. Millions.

It was something to be there, the wind off the water whipping loudly around me, watching. Being blessed by the primeval.

We walked the beach for eight solid hours last night. We checked the flipper tags of every turtle we saw, but we found no Canadian leatherbacks.

Maybe tonight.

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Trinidad, Day 1

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This is my view right now. It is early evening, there is a rooster crowing, there are birds chirping (somewhere there are parrots!), and I can’t wait for the sun to set.

We are at Matura in Trinidad. I’m here with Devan, our CSTN turtle technician, and Canadian sea turtle expert Dr. Mike James. A film crew from NHK Enterprises in Japan is working on a leatherback turtle documentary. They have invited the CSTN to be part of it, and the first segment they are filming takes place here.

We were delighted to have the chance to come back to Trinidad. Mike and Devan were here last year with the wonderful film crew who made the Nature of Things documentary. I haven’t been here since March of 1998. This is the beach where Dr. Scott Eckert first trained Mike and me to satellite tag leatherbacks.

Scott is here, as are our friends from the Nature Seekers. (We will meet up with our friends up at Grande Rivière later in the week.) And very soon, when it starts to get dark, we will head to the beach to see the nesting leatherback turtles.

We’re searching for “Canadian” leatherbacks. If we find them, we will satellite tag two of them and hopefully get the first complete track of a Canadian leatherback turtle from the nesting beach to the waters off Atlantic Canada. We tried to do this with Peggy the turtle last year, but she was caught in fishing gear within a few weeks, and didn’t make it north.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a nesting leatherback turtle. I’m a little nervous, like you feel before you meet a friend you haven’t seen in years. Everyone is getting ready around me. Scott just appeared in the hall dressed in field gear, carrying his giant blue backpack. Mike and Devan are across the way doing yet one-more-check over the scientific equipment we need tonight in case we put out a tag. The film crew is already at the beach.

I need to turn on the light to finish this post, so the sun is almost down. Turtle time!

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World Turtle Day

Today is World Turtle Day. (Really.)

I keep thinking about an article we posted on Facebook this week about a leatherback turtle that crashed a wedding in St. Croix. You can see the photos here. The guests were mingling on the beach and the leatherback emerged from the surf. She hauled herself up the sand and proceeded to lay a nest of eggs—a process that can take almost two hours.

Turtle friends posted and re-posted this on their own Facebook pages…the bride next to the leatherback. I loved the comments they made, things like: “Best photo bomb ever!” “Best wedding present ever!” and “Awesome wedding blessing from the universe!”

I bet that no matter how many years pass, the people who went to that wedding will never forget it. And every one of them will remember and talk about the leatherback.

That turtle made an already meaningful event extraordinary.

It’s one of the great gifts sea turtles give us. They arrest our view. They help us look for a moment not at ourselves, but at the miracle of a species that has remained virtually the same for more than 100 million years. By their simple presence, they offer us the chance to be amazed by our intricate, multifarious world.

And that is something to celebrate. So Happy World Turtle Day to all of you!

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More Margaret…and more and more turtles

Margaret (in front) and (from left to right) Sheldon Murray, Kevin Muhammad, Trishara Hernandez, Latresa Mayers and Ria Steward-- our friends in Trinidad from the Grand Rivière Nature Tour Guide Association and Stakeholders Against Destruction. Photo courtesy of Kevin Muhammad.

Margaret (in front) and (from left to right) Sheldon Murray, Kevin Muhammad, Trishara Hernandez, Latresa Mayers and Ria Steward– our friends in Trinidad from the Grande Rivière Nature Tour Guide Association and Stakeholders Against Destruction. Photo courtesy of Kevin Muhammad.

Mike James received an email from our friends at Grande Rivière with the subject line: “Your baby.”

“I was on the beach last night facilitating a tag training session with Toco folks and look who I ran into,” wrote Kevin Muhammad.

Margaret!

She was back nesting again (likely for the third time by this point) and she looked terrific. This is a photo of the team that found her along with Margaret herself.

It’s been an exciting few weeks at the beaches in Trinidad. On Matura beach, the Nature Seekers found seven Canadian turtles nesting! They could tell they were “our” turtles by reading their flipper tags. Flipper tags are small metal tags that sea turtle researchers attach to turtles’ flippers as a way of identifying the animals. The tags have a code made up of numbers and letters on one side (ours start with CAN for “Canada”) and the research group’s mailing address on the other.

Here’s what we know about the leatherbacks they found:

  1. We caught one of them last August just a few hours before we caught and satellite-tagged Margaret! When we caught this turtle we didn’t know she was from Trinidad. (When we caught Margaret, she had flipper tags that had been applied in Trinidad, so we knew she was a Trinidad nester.)
  1. We flipper tagged one of the leatherbacks in 2011.
  1. Two of the turtles were previously satellite tagged. One of them in 2005 and the other in 2012.

We are particularly excited to hear news of the turtle from 2012. She had been entangled in fishing gear when we found her. We cleared her of the gear before we put the tag on her and were interested to watch how she managed after the entanglement. We are thrilled to hear that she is healthy and nesting now!

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