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.

2015_03_03_engraving

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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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Snow days

2015_02_19

There are sloppy snowflakes flying outside my window as I type. The traffic is moving slowly, wipers going, trying to slough off the accumulating snow. The houses across the street are getting harder to see as the storm persists. We’ve had a lot of snow in Nova Scotia lately. (Here’s one take on our weather that might make you laugh.)

So you can appreciate why I’m wishing, just a bit, that I were with Christie right now—off the northeast coast of South America, where it is warm and where there will not be shoveling of driveways tonight. (But there won’t be snowmen or sledding or the sound of crunchy snow either, I suppose.)

Beverly has found a way to stay north and warm, hanging out in the Gulf Stream, still.

And Asha. We haven’t heard from her transmitter again since last week. If we don’t get any hits by the next map update, we’ll know her track is finished. I’ll hold out a little hope until then.

In the meantime, I’ll bundle up.

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And she’s back

2015_02_12

This is what I mean. You just never know.

Asha’s tag is transmitting again—not regularly, but enough to let us know where she is. We’ve had five good locations from her in the last week. Normally we’d expect that many per day, but we’ll take what we can get. Regardless, she’s really on the move now. Watch out Christie! (Not that it’s a competition…)

So good news from here!

 

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Transmission trouble

2015_02_05

Beverly is still way north and east of where we’d expect to see her. She’s only about 330 km from the Azores! Christie is just where we’d expect her—about 1,600 km from Trinidad, where she should be heading to nest in the next few months.

And then there is Asha. You can see that we haven’t had a good hit from her satellite tag since last week. We’re not getting any satellite locations from her tag, although the tag is still trying to communicate.

In order to get a location, the satellite must receive approximately four messages from the tag when it passes over. It takes that much information to verify where the tag is. Right now, it seems as though Asha’s tag is sending only one message at a time. We haven’t determined why quite yet, though we suspect the tag might have biofouling issues. Biofouling is when organisms like algae and barnacles colonize on the tag and impact its performance.

Although frustrating, this isn’t unusual. You may remember a similar situation with Jacquelyn and the remarkable story of Red Rockette!

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Lily Rose

We name turtles after people sometimes. Not always, but sometimes.

Two years ago, we named one of the turtles we satellite tagged “Lily Rose.” You may remember her. Months after her transmitter stopped working, she was found nesting in French Guiana.

Lily Rose was named after a little girl: Miss Lily Rose Rosploch. And Lily Rose the girl was fighting neuroblastoma, a kind of cancer.

At one point, Lily was—miraculously—cancer free.

But then it came back.

And it is with great, great sadness that I tell you, sweet Miss Lily Rose died on January 31. She was five years old.

 

Lily (left) and her little sister, Mya.

Lily Rose (left) and her little sister, Mya.

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You think you know

2015_01_30

So if this were a race to the nesting beach, you might be inclined to think Christie is going to win it.

I’m not so sure.

Look at how Asha is starting to head south. (I feel like I’ve said that before, and then Asha has just turned back north again, but I think this may really be her, heading south!) She might surprise you.

But the biggest surprise of all may come from Beverly, who has been—well generally surprising anyway. She’s still far, far north of where we’d expect to find her at this time of the year. But you just never know with leatherbacks. It could change really quickly.

Christie, for example, who has been following the more traditional path of “Canadian” leatherbacks, may just decide to stop and hang out off the beaches long enough for one of those other two turtles to make it in to nest ahead of her.

Not that it’s a competition.

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Jairo Vive

Jairo weighs a hatchling leatherback. In 2012, according to The Tico Times, Jairo and his colleagues on Moín Beach saved 1,474 sea turtle nests. In 2013, poachers stole the eggs from all but eight. Photo: Christine Figgener, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jairo weighs a hatchling leatherback. In 2012, according to The Tico Times, Jairo and his colleagues on Moín Beach saved 1,474 sea turtle nests. In 2013, poachers stole the eggs from all but eight. Photo: Christine Figgener, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sometime after 10:30 p.m. on May 30, 2013, Jairo Morra Sandoval was murdered on a Costa Rican beach. Jairo, who was 26 years old, protected leatherback turtle eggs and was killed for it by a particularly violent group of poachers.

This week, the seven men accused of his murder were acquitted. According to the Costa Rican newspaper The Tico Times, “In her closing explanation, a visibly angry Judge Yolanda Alvarado admonished prosecutors and the OIJ (Judicial Investigation Police), citing fundamental and troubling problems with the investigation and the prosecution’s presentation as the key reasons they could not reach a guilty verdict.”

The Tico Times outlines the “delays and blunders” in the trial in this article. Both this piece by The Tico Times and this piece in Outside Magazine give background on the story.

This story is distressing and sad. Jairo had been working with sea turtles since he was a little boy. He released his first leatherback turtle hatchlings when he was six. He was on the front lines, trying to keep leatherbacks safe. As the beach became more dangerous and after the local police force cut back their security detail, Jairo used to call his mother for a blessing before he went on patrol.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stood in front of groups of people and listed off “poaching” as one of the threats to the survival of leatherback turtles. People stealing the eggs, which are worth about $1 each on the black market.

But it’s hard to explain what it takes to stop it. I think of my friend Suzan Lakhan Baptiste of Nature Seekers who stood unarmed on Matura Beach in Trinidad, staring down poachers with machetes, ordering them to stay away from the leatherbacks and their eggs. Now virtually no leatherbacks are poached on Matura Beach anymore.

Canada is in a unique position when it comes to leatherbacks. Turtles from the nesting colonies throughout the Caribbean come to Atlantic Canada to feed on jellyfish each spring, summer and fall. I often say that we’re like the United Nations for sea turtles.

Jairo died on Playa Moín—on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The Atlantic side. Canadian turtles nest in Costa Rica. Jairo died protecting animals that could very well have been “ours.”

Graffiti outside of the Limón court where seven men were acquitted of Jairo's murder. Photo: Courtesy Lindsay Fendt (@LEFendt)

Graffiti outside of the Limón court where seven men were acquitted of Jairo’s murder. Photo: Courtesy Lindsay Fendt (@LEFendt)

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This week’s map

The turtles are staying their courses. Beverly is a little bit further east. Asha continues to meander in and out of Canadian waters. And Christie is motoring south.

When we found Christie, she had flipper tags from Trinidad. 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. Given her nesting history, we expect Christie is heading back to Trinidad for this year’s nesting season.

Beverly, too, had flipper tags from Trinidad. I wonder if she’ll eventually turn south to get there?

2015_01_15

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