Trip to Trinidad

At this time of year, we are deep into planning for our upcoming turtle season on the field boat and at the Sea Turtle Centre. But our minds are also full of thoughts of the nesting beach. We’re wondering what is happening in those many countries where Canadian sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Last year around this time, a team from the CSTN was down in Trinidad on Matura Beach working with our friends from Nature Seekers. Kayla Hamelin, who is the CSTN’s coordinator of conservation and educational outreach, was one of the members of that team. She kept a record of her experiences in Trinidad that we want to share with you over the next few blog posts.

Notes from the Field (Trinidad, Part 1)

After several months of exceptionally brutal winter at home in Halifax, we stepped out of the airport in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, into a completely different world. After adjusting to the intense humidity, I was struck by the landscape. Even from the arrivals door, a backdrop of dark green, rolling mountains loomed not too far away. A short drive later, we arrived at Suzan’s Guest House in Matura, our accommodations for this trip.

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The view of the mountains from the sidewalk outside the Port of Spain airport.

This has been my first time spending time in a tropical country, and as a biologist I have been struck by the amount of life that is here in terms of both biomass and biodiversity. It is lush and green… and loud! Thick foliage surrounds us and there is a near-constant cacophony of songbirds and cicadas (not to mention the neighbour’s rooster!). I spend time watching small green lizards climb across the cement patio below, and chattering flocks of parrots fly by each evening. I can see coconut, banana, mango and lime trees from our balcony.

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The view from the balcony at Suzan’s Guest House.

But of course the ultimate reason we are here is found a little way outside of the village of Matura at Matura Beach. This is where leatherback turtles haul themselves out of the ocean to lay their eggs. Something that makes field work on the nesting beach different from our work in Nova Scotia is that it happens at night. Typically, in Canada, when we go out on the boat to conduct our research with leatherbacks at sea, we get up very early in the morning and work throughout the day. Instead, here, our work begins after sundown. We arrived in Trinidad after an overnight flight, and although we tried to rest during the day, I was glad to have a boost of adrenaline keeping me alert as we headed out for our first night on the beach. I was really excited to see my first nesting sea turtle.

The night began with an introductory meeting with our collaborators from Nature Seekers. The Nature Seekers monitor the leatherback nesting beach and guide eco-tours to see the turtles. After deciding on a game plan for the night, we took an entertaining drive down the twisty, bumpy road to the beach. On top of having to “drive British” (in the left lane, with steering wheel on the right and gear shift on the left), we had to dodge a couple of bold local dogs and, even a loose horse that crossed our path (“I thought it was a moose!” quipped the Cape Bretoner on our Canadian research team). We finally arrived at the parking lot. Bats swooped overhead as we headed down a gravel path to the beach.

The beach itself is an amazing sensory experience; the salty smell of the sea wafts over you as incredibly rough surf pounds the beach. The humidity and the sea spray create droplets that are visible in the beam of your headlamp. Behind the sand there is thick forest, and I was particularly struck by the beauty of the arching palm trees silhouetted against the starry indigo sky. We walked for a fairly short distance when our Nature Seekers guide, Randall, said to me: “You’re going to see your first nesting leatherback tonight!” Then he pointed.

A massive turtle was just ahead of us in the sand. I would have walked right by if he hadn’t said anything! There are many large heaps of dark seaweed clumped on the beach and the animal’s black hulk blended right in. She was “body pitting,” moving her body around and digging with all four flippers, settling into the sand and selecting the best spot to start digging the nest cavity. Eventually she concentrated on digging the hole for her nest, and then began depositing her eggs. It was incredible.

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Kayla and her first nesting leatherback turtle. The light near the turtle’s head is red from the headlamps of people nearby. People use red light on the beach instead of white light because it does not disturb the turtles while they nest.

Despite two seasons at CSTN on the turtle boat working with dozens of live leatherbacks at sea, this was a completely different experience. I can only describe it as a “circle of life” moment. All of the leatherbacks we see in Nova Scotia begin their lives in a place like this. It was surprisingly emotional to see a nesting animal that had beat the odds to survive to adulthood, and had likely swam thousands of kilometres from her distant foraging grounds to be there that night. Plus, I was witnessing an incredibly ancient process. These animals have been coming up to the beach in this same way for literally millions of years.

In Nova Scotia, our at-sea field work with leatherbacks is typically hectic. To ensure their health and well-being, we have to work with the turtles very efficiently to return them to the ocean as quickly as possible. But on the nesting beach, things are much slower. It takes leatherbacks about two hours to complete the nesting process. This gives us a lot of time to take in the experience. We do most of our tagging, morphometrics, and injury assessments (“working up” the turtle) while the turtle is laying her eggs, when she enters a trance-like state.

After soaking in my first experience with a nesting turtle, we got down to business, working up this turtle, and several others that we found further along the beach. It was a successful first night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beverly nested!

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We were just checking the data records sent to us by our friends at Nature Seekers in Trinidad about the Canadian turtles they’ve seen on the beach. The records list many things, including the series of numbers on each turtle’s flipper tags.

And one of them was Beverly! She nested at Matura Beach at 11:48 p.m. on April 9.

Beverly was not wearing her satellite transmitter any longer, so she looked like any of the other nesting turtles there. But her flipper tags confirm it was her.

I have been lucky to spend time at Matura Beach myself so I have an idea of what it would have been like to watch Beverly lay her eggs that dark night, only a sliver of crescent moon in the sky.

But still I wish I’d been there to see that moment when she touched land again after thousands and thousands of kilometres and three solid years at sea.

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This is a photograph I took of a leatherback nesting on Matura Beach in Trinidad when I was there in May 2014. This turtle, like Beverly, came ashore after an incredible journey.

 

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Beverly

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It’s generally the time of year that we start to get very excited about our turtles heading to the nesting beach.

I had been, as you know, particularly curious about what Beverly was going to do. Beverly has been one of our most interesting leatherbacks. She has a nesting history in Trinidad that suggested she should have nested there last year. But as you may remember, she didn’t. Instead, she slowly looped eastward.

You can see from the map below that Beverly went south this year. Part of me was glad in that I-told-you-so kind of way. She’s doing what she’s supposed to do, is how I felt. She’s doing the thing that fits my human, scientific-box-of-a-Beverly.

I settled back, excited to follow her to the nesting beach at Matura.

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But then her transmitter stopped working. There are a number of reasons this might happen, but in this case, we think the cause was biofouling—when organisims like barnacles or algae grow on the satellite tag and prevent it from working properly.

So we have to wait to see what will happen next. Hopefully, our friends at Matura Beach in Trinidad will find her nesting there this year as she has in the past. They’ll recognize her either from the transmitter (if it hasn’t fallen off) or from her flipper tags.

Or maybe she’ll haul up on an isolated stretch of beach in Trinidad, where no one finds her and we have to wait for many years and many more nests to hear from her again.

The scientific part of me wants her to be found in the next few weeks. The part of me that likes happy endings wants this, too. The loop closed—from Canada to the Caribbean—feeding to nesting. A safe journey from one “home” to the other.

But then I remember, a few years ago, standing on Matura nesting beach myself in the dark night. The loud wind blowing clouds across the bright moon like dried fall leaves. The turtles hauling up out of the surf around me, slowly making their laboured way up the sand to lay their eggs as their species has done for millions of years. For millions of years.

And there is something I love about the idea of Beverly doing this away from our human eyes. Alone. Wild. It seems just like her.

 

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Nicole and the map

Here is where our turtles are:

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I have found it difficult to post these maps of late. The process itself is the same, of course. But I used to send the links to my friend Nicole. She was one of those people who was a marine biologist not by training, but by nature. Her deep connection to the ocean was knit into her soul.

There are many things to know about Nicole, but one is that she had a marvelous laugh—the kind you could pick out because it was uncommonly lovely. Her laugh was like a sentence—a bit of happiness standing on its own in the conversation.

Nicole often laughed when we told her about what the sea turtles were up to—not because she thought what we said was funny necessarily, but because she was truly delighted by the turtles. She innately understood the wonder of them. She was always interested in the scientific details of our research, listening and nodding and asking questions that made us think.

Our friend Nicole died of leukemia just over two weeks ago. She was only 36, with a beloved husband and two little boys at home—and a raft of family and friends now navigating the complex currents of grief.

I have thought about many things since Nicole died. One thing is how our Canadian Sea Turtle Network is made up of so many people. The people on our office team. Our volunteers. The fishermen who work in the field with us. The sea turtle researchers around the world helping us. The many people who kindly fund us. And people like Nicole, whose hearts hold space for this work that we do. Who laugh, awed and delighted by the ocean and the turtles. Who help to make us stronger and more creative. Who listen and watch and read.

People like you.

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Nicole

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Sad news

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I am sad to report that Eric, the lovely little Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, has died.

He couldn’t overcome the combination of emaciation, pneumonia, and the effects of hypothermia.

He had so many things stacked against him.

We did everything we could to help. Eric was cared for with great skill and extraordinary affection by Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark and his team.

We will now send Eric to Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust at the University of Prince Edward Island. Pierre-Yves will conduct a necropsy (which is like an autopsy) and that way we will learn if there were any additional complications Eric was dealing with. I’ll let you know what we hear.

I am trying to look on the bright side.

I am reminding myself that we learn something new with every sea turtle—both alive and dead—and that this is extremely important, particularly with endangered species.

I am reminding myself about how proud I am of the crew at Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound and the many other people like them in this province who take the time to keep our beaches clear of debris. Who take, simply, the time to walk them. To know the coastline. To be aware of the living place it is.

And then there are the things that I am grateful for that are harder to explain.

During much of the short time I spent with Eric, his eyes were closed. But when I watched him swim, they were wide open. And at one point, while Chris held him out of the water, I had a chance to look into them.

There is a wisdom in those eyes that is different from our own. That knows the world in a way we don’t. What a privilege to have been in its presence.

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Eric update

Eric swam for a bit today. We’re not letting him spend too much time in the water at this point so that he conserves what little energy he has. In very good news, Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark, the vet taking care of Eric, said that our turtle is no longer hypothermic. His temperature is in the normal range again.

Eric is still fighting pneumonia, and likely will be for a while. But Chris says the biggest challenge now is how emaciated Eric is. He isn’t showing an interest in eating yet, which is a worry. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

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Meet Eric

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This turtle is alive!

For the second time that we know of in the seventeen years we’ve been working with sea turtles, someone found a stranded hard-shelled sea turtle along a Nova Scotia shore before it died. Now we’re trying our best to help it survive.

On Sunday, as they do every day, the employees of the Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound scanned the coastline near them to make sure it was clear of debris. They collect any garbage or broken crates they see to prevent them from washing back into the ocean.

“I saw a blue box out on the rocks, and asked Les Roy to go and get it,” explained Hope Shanks, who has worked at the Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound for nineteen years. “He came back with this turtle.”

Hope called our good friend Dr. Sherman Bleakney, who lives in Wolfville. Sherman was the first scientist to propose that leatherbacks might be regular visitors to Canadian waters back in 1965. He called our toll-free turtle line, his voice packed with characteristic enthusiasm.

“How are you?” I asked him.

“I’m great as you’d expect on a day where there’s a live sea turtle in Hall’s Harbour,” was his reply.

The turtle is a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. It is, as you know, the second Kemp’s we’ve found recently. It’s the first one we’ve ever found alive. It’s also only the thirteenth Kemp’s ridley turtle on record in the history of Atlantic Canada. And, while we’re discussing statistics, it’s worth noting that it’s the fourth hard-shelled sea turtle we’ve worked with in the last ten days and the second found in Hall’s Harbour.

“These turtles may be more common in Canadian waters than we thought,” says Canadian sea turtle biologist Dr. Mike James. Mike captured and released a Kemp’s of this size while he was doing research offshore this summer.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the most endangered sea turtles in the world. This turtle is a juvenile, which means that it is too young for us to be able to determine its sex by looking at it. But the crew at the Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound named the turtle “Eric,” so we’re sticking with that. Eric is cold stunned. This means he found himself suddenly in water that was too cold for him to manage.

At the moment, Eric is safely tucked into a blue tote under the care of Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark, a veterinarian who is one of the founding members of the CSTN.

“This turtle is severely hypothermic and emaciated,” Chris said. He pointed to the muscles in Eric’s neck, which were clearly visible under the skin, as opposed to buried in a healthy layer of fat. “These are both difficult conditions to deal with.”

Chris had a warning tone in his voice. The it’s-a-long-road-from-here tone. The just-be-prepared tone. The watch-your-heart tone.

Because of course, although Eric is critically ill, he’s already beloved by all of us.

And maybe by you, too.

Chris Harvey-Clark kindly shared this video of Eric’s initial vet visit:

https://vimeo.com/145212030

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Turtle tracks are back!

Here is where our turtles are today:

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In great news, the Canadian Wildlife Federation will be highlighting the tracks of four of our leatherbacks in an initiative called The Great Canadian Turtle Race, which they launched this week. It’s terrific coverage for sea turtles from an organization that is passionate about conserving wildlife in Canada. We’re really excited about it!

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Little sea turtles

Kemp's ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)

Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)

These two sweeties were in our office this morning: a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a loggerhead sea turtle. They were both found dead along the Nova Scotia shore of the Bay of Fundy. They are small—juvenile turtles—and they are something to see in person. I am struck by how delicate a turtle, despite its shell, can seem. How vulnerable.

There are only a dozen Kemp’s ridley sightings on record in Nova Scotia. Kemp’s are considered the most endangered of the world’s sea turtles. And although we know we have loggerheads in Atlantic Canadian waters, it is rare for us to come across one this young.

These little turtles are, of course, much, much smaller than a leatherback. Scientists measure sea turtles using their shell length, which we refer to as the Curved Carapace Length or “CCL.” The smallest leatherback turtle we have ever worked with had a CCL of just under 120 cm. This Kemp’s had a CCL of 27 cm and the loggerhead had a CCL of 24.5 cm.

We won’t know for certain why these turtles died until our friend Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust at the University of Prince Edward Island conducts the necropsy (which is like an autopsy) on them next week. But it is a safe bet that they died of hypothermia.

Leatherbacks are able to withstand colder water temperatures than hard-shelled turtles (like Kemp’s and loggerheads) can. When hard-shelled turtles suddenly find themselves in cold water, they become “cold stunned.” If they are found soon enough they can survive. In November and December, sea turtles routinely cold stun along the coast of New England. Last year, there were an unprecedented number.

The Kemp’s was found by Betty Kenneally. Betty walks the beach near her home four times a week. She isn’t patrolling for sea turtles specifically, but this happens to be the second Kemp’s ridley turtle she’s found and reported to us.

The loggerhead was found by Carrie Dickie, who was walking the beach near her home. Her husband, Gerald Dickie, a biologist himself, carefully recorded all of the details of the animal for us.

Gerald Dickie's careful record of the loggerhead turtle Carrie Dickie found stranded on the coast of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

Gerald Dickie’s careful record of the loggerhead turtle Carrie Dickie found stranded on the coast of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

We are so grateful that they thought to call us. If you live in Nova Scotia and are interested in helping us patrol the beaches for these animals over the next six weeks, please email us at: info@seaturtle.ca.

I’ve seen many dead sea turtles over the years. And each time I wish I could whisper a bit of life into them in the way one might be allowed in a Disney film. Something to make the heads lift up and the flippers move. Something that would allow us to send them safely back into the ocean.

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Back at the office

We’re gradually settling back into office life, packing away equipment and painstakingly transferring information from our field sheets to our database. Our sea turtle field season is over, although there are still leatherbacks and loggerheads swimming in Canadian waters. The leatherbacks will start heading south over the next month, instinct sending them towards the nesting beaches of Florida, the Caribbean and South America. (Unless, of course, they are Beverly last year, who decided staying north and travelling east made more sense. Remember this and this and this?!)

Here is a look at where our satellite-tagged leatherbacks are these days:

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