Nothing short of AMAZING!

Christie nesting on Matura Beach, Trinidad, wearing her new satellite transmitter.  Photo courtesy of Nature Seekers (natureseekers.org).

Christie nesting on Matura Beach, Trinidad, wearing her new satellite transmitter.
Photo courtesy of Nature Seekers (natureseekers.org).

Christie is BACK!

The turtle phone rang at 12:30 this morning.

It was Kyle, from the Nature Seekers in Trinidad.

“Unfortunately, we have good news and bad news,” he said. “The good news is Christie is alive and well. The bad news, she doesn’t have the transmitter attached.”

Francis, another one of the Nature Seekers, had been finishing up an ecotour with a crowd on Matura beach when he walked by a leatherback hauling up on the sand. One of the tourists asked how much bigger she was then the other turtle they had just seen nest. Francis went to check her out when he noticed she had a distinctive, transmitter-sized patch on the centre of the carapace.

This patch is one of the things the beach crews in Trinidad were looking for. We have learned over the years, that when a transmitter comes off a turtle, the skin directly under it is light in colour. Within a few weeks, the skin will darken again.

Francis raced to check the turtle’s flipper tags and radioed Kyle.

“He read the numbers over the radio for me and BAM! It was Christie. That’s when we sprang into action,” said Kyle.

And Christie looked good. The transmitter had clearly been knocked off—likely during mating.

But that is just the start.

Some of our team went down to Trinidad two weeks ago to train members of the Nature Seekers in safely attaching satellite transmitters to leatherbacks. We wanted them to put transmitters on Canadian turtles so we could get the first leatherback satellite tracks back to Canada from the nesting beach.

Kyle, Devin and Francis put one of those satellite transmitters on Christie.

Our goal is to watch her swim back home to us again.

When something like this happens it is hard to explain how slim the chances of it are. It’s miraculous. We are thrilled. And so proud of our friends at Matura. What a team!

Kyle, Devin and Francis with Christie. Photo courtesy of Nature Seekers (natureseekers.org).

Kyle, Devin and Francis with Christie. Photo courtesy of Nature Seekers (natureseekers.org).

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Beverly’s feast

2015_04_10

Well, my prediction that Beverly would turn suddenly down to the nesting beach was wrong. She is still hanging off the Azores, and not heading to Trinidad. The reason I’d been so sure she might go to a beach there was because she had been recorded nesting in Trinidad before—and the last time was in 2013.

Most leatherbacks in the western Atlantic nest every two to three years. The majority nests every two years (hence, my assumptions about Beverly). The time between nesting years is called the “remigration interval,” and it varies, sometimes by many years. Pacific leatherbacks, for example, have remigration intervals that are closer to four years.

Scientists think the remigration interval reflects the amount of food a turtle finds on her migration. The interval is the time it takes the leatherback to eat enough to generate the energy required to migrate back to the breeding ground and reproduce.

“It’s not surprising that she’s not remigrating,” says Canadian sea turtle expert Dr. Mike James. “What is interesting is that Beverly is so far north. She must have found an abundant food resource because she’s stayed in the same area for months, which is unusual. I imagine she’s good and fat by now. I’m curious to see in the next few months what she does—whether she goes back to the slope waters off Canada, or whether she does what none of our tagged animals has done before, and goes east.”

If Beverly does head back into Canadian waters, maybe we’ll find her again up here this summer.

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No more Christie

2015_03_30_ChristieZoom

Christie’s tag stopped transmitting on Saturday.

We are so disappointed. She was just 300 kilometers away from where we expected her to nest. She had logged approximately 11,500 kilometres since we tagged her.

Data from the tag on March 28 showed that she was diving normally and that the tag had plenty of battery. But, as you may remember, Christie had just started onto the shelf waters, a place where we know leatherbacks mate. It is our best guess that a male turtle damaged the antenna of the transmitter or knocked the tag off her altogether.

There is also always a possibility that she was caught in fishing gear.

If indeed, as we hope, Christie simply lost the tag mating, then we will keep our fingers crossed that someone finds our turtle when she eventually hauls up on the nesting beach. She should still have her flipper tags safely in place as well as her microchip. And there is a chance that her transmitter is still on. If that’s the case, the transmitter can be recovered—along with all of the important data it contains—if someone finds her. This happened before in the amazing story of Red Rockette. So we remain cautiously optimistic.

But we will miss following her movements. Christie was a bright spot in our days as we checked always with excitement to see how far she’d travelled. What a privilege it was to watch her remarkable journey (11,500 kilometres!!) up close.

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Close-up

This is what I mean about the leatherback beeline. This morning, Christie is only about 400 km from Fishing Pond beach, the place where she was seen nesting in 2011. She’s starting to head north along the shelf break to Trinidad.

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Time for Trinidad

2015_03_26_full

Now we’re focused on Christie (although I do note that Beverly is moving more convincingly south). Christie is doing the amazing leatherback beeline. I love this part. After months of navigating the enormous ocean, she is heading directly for the waters off the Trinidad nesting beaches. Check out this close-up map.

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Christie is covering a lot of distance quickly. She could be there within just a few weeks. We expect her to travel up and down the coast of Trinidad once she arrives in the vicinity—making us crazy wondering which night she’ll pick to haul ashore. Lots of excitement to come!

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Plots thicken

2015_03_12

As I mentioned last week, I’m keeping my eye on Beverly right now. Still moving south. I think we’ll know in just a few more days whether or not she’s going to start the great swim toward Trinidad. I have the same feeling I get when I want to know the ending of a story right away without waiting any longer. And in this case, I can’t flip to the final pages of a book to satisfy my curiosity. Turtles teach me patience!

I’m glad to see Christie is heading closer to Trinidad.

It’s been one month since we last heard from Asha. And I have to admit wondering where she is, too. Asha was our mystery turtle this year. She didn’t have a recorded nesting history. No flipper tags. No microchip. Where she went was going to be a complete surprise. Hope we get to find out someday.

 

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Heading north and south and maybe west

2015_03_06

Christie is turning a little to the north right now. As you may remember, she has a history of nesting in Trinidad. We expect she’ll meander around the waters off the coast for a few weeks yet. Pretty soon, every time she looks like she might dart in close to shore, we’ll start to get jumpy and wonder if tonight is the night when she nests. That is always fun.

The turtle I’m particularly interested in today, however, is Beverly. Right now she is almost exactly halfway between the coast of Newfoundland and the coast of Spain. She’s approximately 1,700 kilometers from each.

But have a close look. She moved south and the tiniest bit west. I see that she’s done this before. But I think at some point Beverly is going to take off and catch up with Christie because Beverly also has a history of nesting in Trinidad. She was seen on the beach nesting there in 2013, which makes it reasonable to expect her to be back this year.

At this point, Beverly is about 4,500 kilometres from Trinidad. That’s a long swim! But maybe she’s heading there now?

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Nicholas

 

Mike James (left) and Nicholas Mrosovsky on the sea turtle boat.

Mike James (left) and Nicholas Mrosovsky on the sea turtle boat.

Nicholas Mrosovsky is one of the only visitors to our project to miss seeing a leatherback. Usually, even if the weather is bad and turtles are scarce, we are able to find one. But Nicholas struck out both times he came with us, spending cumulatively more than a week of days out on the boat to no end.

It was particularly disappointing because Nicholas was one of the “original” sea turtle scientists. His work on how the temperature of incubating eggs affects the sex of the hatchling turtles is a cornerstone of sea turtle biology. Nicholas had published two papers with Mike James, our science advisor, with the help of the CSTN–one about the body temperatures of leatherbacks and one about leatherback turtles ingesting plastics. We were desperate to show him the magnificence of a leatherback swimming in the sea.

Nicholas died on February 22. His family and friends are together today, celebrating his remarkable life on what would have been his 81st birthday.

There are many reasons I loved Nicholas. He was funny and a gentleman. He was a scientist who was also a talented painter. He was, from our first meeting in 2001, always extremely kind to me and concerned for the success of our sea turtle work in Canada. (He was a Canadian, too, after all.) Nicholas was very tall—well over six feet—and rail-thin, which gave him a quality of physical frailty that belied his strength and the years he spent working on nesting beaches of Central and South America.

But what I think I admired most about him was his absolute commitment to finding what was true and to using precise language to describe that truth. Nicholas said what he thought was true even when it made him (sometimes extremely) unpopular. He sent colleagues critiques of their published work because he felt it mattered that all of us used our intelligence to help perfect the scientific process and our findings. He didn’t seem as worried about how his thoughts might be received (not everyone wants their work critiqued!) as he was about registering them—he seemed to have a sense of this as a moral responsibility.

It takes courage to say what is true, and it takes a type of enduring fortitude to turn that behaviour into a practice. It also takes a refined sense of yourself as part of a larger community of thinkers collectively working to use science to improve the world and our understanding of it.

2015_03_03_SEAFdedicationWe have many of Nicholas’ papers archived at the Canadian Sea Turtle Network. They came in boxes and padded envelopes over the years—articles and letters and research notes. And one day, in amongst the box, were gifts, both of which sit on my bookshelf where I see them daily. One was his copy of the seminal sea turtle book So Excellent a Fishe by Archie Carr, complete with Carr’s inscription in it. I particularly love the title page of the book, which has Nicholas’ lightly penciled notes scattered along the side.

The second was another book called Creatures of the Sea by Frank T. Bullen, first published in 1904. It is opulent, the way some older books are. I think it must have appealed both to Nicholas’ curiosity and his appreciation of art. When I opened it I saw that Nicholas had carefully marked pages with yellow post-its, so I could easily find the engravings of sea turtles.

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Asha’s track is finished

2015_02_26

No new hits from Asha. We’ve heard nothing from her tag since February 11. She has officially gone offline.

The question in these situations is always: Why?

I can’t answer with certainty except to say I don’t know.

We don’t think that she has been hurt. Because her tag hits trickled down, it is unlikely that we’ve lost contact for any reason other than the failure of the tag in some respect.

It is possible that the tag was knocked off of her shell, though this is also unlikely because the hits to the satellite slowly decreased.

It is most likely that the tag was biofouled, which happens when organisms like algae and barnacles colonize on the tag and impact how it performs.

But here is the silver lining. She may yet be found (as in the remarkable case of Red Rockette!). In addition to her satellite tag, Asha was wearing flipper tags. These are the small metal tags sea turtle researchers attach to turtles’ flippers as a way of identifying the animals. The tags have an ID code on one side (our codes start with CAN for “Canada”) and the research group’s mailing address on the other. Asha is also microchipped with a number that is linked to our group.

So if she does nest on a beach where there is a monitoring program, one of our colleagues in the Caribbean will find her and will be able to tell us about her. If we’re extra lucky, she’ll still be wearing the satellite tag and we’ll have the chance to get it back.

The trick with Asha, however, is that she has no known nesting history. She was not previously flipper tagged or microchipped by another group. We didn’t know where in the ocean she was going.

So the happy ending to this story that we’re hoping for may be some time in coming. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that Asha stays safe in the meantime.

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Turtle-cam: Life from a leatherback’s perspective

This is a look at life from a leatherback’s point of view. That is the top of the leatherback’s head you see in the foreground, with a jellyfish just beyond it.

To us this video is amazing and fascinating.

It was taken using a camera attached to the shell of a leatherback turtle. Dr. Mike James, who is the CSTN’s scientific advisor, developed this camera in collaboration with engineers at Xeos Technologies and Soko Technologies. They called it Serrano-V.

A scientific paper published today of which Mike is a co-author talks about what we’ve learned with the help of Serrano-V and why it is so critical to the conservation of leatherbacks.

As you know, we collect data about leatherbacks using satellite transmitters. This data is “coarse.” It doesn’t get into the fine details of what the leatherbacks are doing because it is limited by the amount and type of data you can transmit through the bandwidth of the system of satellites used to monitor the tags.

Serrano-V allowed us to collect the finest-scale behavioural data currently available for leatherback turtles while simultaneously recording video from a camera mounted on the turtle’s shell. Dr. Bryan Wallace, who is a co-author on the paper, says “it’s like getting turtle’s home videos—seeing what they see, where they go, and how they acquire vital resources to fuel their natural behaviour.”

It is just the kind of information we need to work at conserving leatherbacks in the most intelligent way possible. “Rather than inferring what the turtles are doing below the surface of the water, we can actually see it happening,” says Mike.

Bryan Wallace (left) and Mike James (right) on the turtle boat off Nova Scotia.

Bryan Wallace (left) and Mike James (right) on the turtle boat off Nova Scotia.

The paper is really exciting for us—and particularly because Bryan and Michael Zolkewitz, the other co-author, are tremendous scientists who are as enthusiastic about this work as we are.

What that paper can’t tell you, however, is how hard it was to get this to work. This represents years of trial and error. (The project began almost a decade ago while Mike was finishing his post-doc!) There were growing pains typical of refining such a cutting-edge instrument…inevitably, sometimes the camera didn’t record or a sensor needed to be replaced. The camera system was also subjected to tough conditions at sea. You can imagine the impact of pounding waves, of the force of water as the turtle swam and dove. There were hours of video that couldn’t be included in the analysis because the camera had shifted from its original position on the turtle’s shell and the field of view we needed wasn’t captured.

Mike used to rest Serrano-V on an old white pillow in the hold of the boat to protect it from being jostled and damaged when it wasn’t in use. And then when it was, he would emerge from below deck, carefully balancing Serrano-V, still on its pillow. He’d climb along the side of the boat, bending under the stay wires to stand up on the bow, calling for everyone to stand back to protect the delicate antennas. It was always funny—but serious, too. There was only ever one Serrano-V. There was no replacement available. And we all knew how much value the study would have if it worked.

I love the feeding video. It’s spectacular. It seems to me such a privilege to have the chance to see what the leatherbacks are up to—to be humans allowed in that private world of theirs.

But I love this video, too. This one is from the early days of Serrano-V. You can see it on the turtle. It is slipping slightly. What is most important to me is the conversation you hear. Those are the voices of Mike and Blair and Bert Fricker, who are two of the fishermen we have worked with the longest. Blair is the captain of our field boat off Cape Breton. You can briefly hear Martin, who worked on our field team for years, and a little of me. Everyone is suggesting ways to make the tag work better. The success we are celebrating with this paper is the result of dozens and dozens of conversations like this one—of lots of minds working out the small details of a big question. The value of a strong team of dedicated people.

The other thing that a paper can’t represent properly is that moment when a scientist, faced with needing information that can’t be collected because of the limits of technology becomes determined to find a way to make that technology. That to me is also remarkable. That is magic. That is art as much as painting or dancing or writing. It takes courage to create something that wasn’t there and courage to be tenacious season after season even in the face of a lot of “failure.” It takes a great team and the ability to inspire them. So cheers to you, Mike James—and to all the people who helped—fishermen, biologists, engineers, CSTN staff. And thanks.

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