Category Archives: General

Reasoning

It has been hard to write here for many months.

Sometimes I am struck silent by the weightlessness of words. They tumble and break around us and still I can’t make them loud enough to show what the ocean is. The pleasant crackling of corophium in the mud. The shifting smell of saltwater, laced sometimes with dried seaweed, sometimes with whipping wind. The quality of the grayish-turquoise of the back of a blue whale as it arcs endlessly just in front of a boat.

So I have told myself that you know already why it matters that we have sea turtles in the world.

And I have sat, uneasily, as the weeks slipped by and this page was quiet. And I have thought hard about what our work is. What our job is. What I should do. What is most useful. What is necessary. What is not just noise.

My lungs hurt when I took the first breaths after learning the head of the Environmental Protection Agency in Donald Trump’s administration is Scott Pruitt.

My thirteen-year-old son brought home his English assignment last night: interpret the lyrics of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” one of Bob Dylan’s songs. My late father loved Dylan. I hadn’t thought of the song in years. But in an instant I was a little girl, lying in bed somewhere between awake and asleep, and the song was playing on our record player, its needle slightly scratchy.

 I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

There is an allure to the sense of despair. To sitting forlorn.

I have come to think that it is not what is needed now. That whether or not you already understand implicitly the wonder of the sea and of nature—whether it is etched deeply in your bones, your DNA, your heart—it matters that we talk about it. That we call it out to one another and to people who don’t know it yet. That we sing it sometimes like an anthem and sometimes like a lullaby.

 Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?

Dylan’s distinctive voice slipping past my dad at the dining room table and up the stairs and down the hall to my room.

 I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’

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Trip to Trinidad

This is the second part of Kayla Hamelin’s journal of her time working on the nesting beach with leatherbacks in Trinidad last spring. Kayla is the CSTN’s coordinator of conservation and educational outreach. You can read the first of her impressions of Trinidad here.

Notes from the Field (Trinidad, Part 2)

Everyone is incredibly friendly and welcoming here. Our meals at the guesthouse are prepared by local women, and the food has an interesting blend of Indian, Caribbean, and other flavours that reflect Trinidad’s diverse cultural history. Plus the food is tasty and hearty—perfect for field-work appetites! We have bonded with the children who spend time at the guesthouse during the day. I am affectionately called “auntie” by one in particular. We play games, and “Angry Birds” on my iPhone is a popular request. Considering how different this place is from anywhere else I’ve lived or travelled, it’s surprisingly easy to settle in and feel at home.

On our second night on the beach, we had a special task: training some of the Nature Seekers staff to deploy satellite tags. These are the same types of instruments that we have used to tag and follow Beverly, Asha and Christie. Instead of deploying them from our field boat and remotely following the turtles to the beach, we would like to do the opposite—have them deployed on a turtle here on the beach (ideally one with a history of coming up to the Canadian foraging grounds) so we can follow her in her post-nesting period.

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Learning how to satellite tag a nesting leatherback turtle.

Turtle scientist, Mike James, and CSTN turtle technician, Devan Archibald, introduced the team to the equipment at the Nature Seekers office and then demonstrated how to set up the tag on an actual turtle that night on the beach. The training was successful and our tags are in good hands with the Nature Seekers. Now it is just a matter of waiting for the right turtle candidate: ideally a “CAN” turtle. The C-A-N code on a turtle’s flipper tags indicates she was tagged by us in Canadian waters. We might even find a turtle with a Canadian connection during this trip and be able to take part in the tag deployment!

We have worked with a good number of turtles so far and have been happy with the progress of our work. We have also encountered an adorable possum by the edge of the forest; watched bioluminescent microbes flash their blue-ish light as we disturbed the mats of seaweed on the beach that harbour them; and taken a “snack break” to sip coconut water straight from the fruit. I can’t wait to see what the coming days (and nights!) have in store.

 

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Beach snack!

 

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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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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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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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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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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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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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With love to Ann

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Ann Smith

Ann Smith, one of the most loving and supportive fans of the CSTN, died suddenly just over a week ago. We are so sad.

Ann was there for the very first talks about whether Mike James, then a new graduate student, should take the risk of starting a thesis on leatherback turtles—a species that no one at that time could imagine actually came to Canadian waters with any regularity.

And from the beginning, Ann did the most important thing she could: She believed in us. Right away. She was always enthusiastic. “Now what’s up with the turtles?” she would ask each time we saw her—hundreds of times over the years. She would listen intently. She was genuinely delighted by our successes and had perspective on our challenges. “It will all work out,” she’d say.

Ann was one of the people to whom we most wanted to tell things. It was as though when she knew, those things were more complete somehow. Fully celebrated. Properly thought through. Firmly placed in the heart of someone who cared.

Sometimes conservation work can be lonely. Sometimes you can get lost in that feeling that all you are fighting for is in vain—strangled by entrenched ideas and apathy and politics and a lack of imagination.

The trick, of course, is to stay relentlessly positive. To focus on all that is extraordinary about sea turtles. To remember the many people who are also trying to help. To think of the ocean. To trust that honest, hard work will matter and be magnified. To believe that the world is ultimately full of more light than darkness.

Ann helped us do that, too.

We miss her.

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Olympics

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Yesterday the Canadian women’s hockey team won gold at the Olympics. Today the men’s hockey team beat the Americans in the semi-finals. The mail carrier slipped into our office in the midst of the men’s semi-final game, looking for an update.

“How’re we doing?” he asked anxiously.

He didn’t need to say “hello” or to identify whom he meant by “we.” He didn’t need to explain his worried look.

“We’re up by one,” I assured him.

He nodded and then scurried to his next delivery address, where no doubt he’d get another update as the clock ticked down in the third period of the hockey game.

I love how the Olympics–at their best–build a sense of community within countries and between them.

They remind me of sea turtles.

Sea turtles, swimming through the political boundaries of so many different countries, will draw us together if we let them. We see it in our own work, as we track our Canadian sea turtles to nesting beaches in other countries. Rarely does a day go by when my email inbox doesn’t have messages from people in other countries–today, from Colombia, the UK, and the United States.

People working around the world to conserve sea turtles know that we’ll lose these species if we don’t work together. If we don’t give our work our best effort. If we don’t persist in the face of adversity. If we don’t support each other when we’re having trouble.

And we know the importance of celebrating our successes–of keeping our spirits up–of cheering each other on.

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