Category Archives: Nesting beach

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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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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Riley and Lily Rose…and an update on our current turtle gang

Riley and Lily Rose have both been seen nesting in French Guiana! We’ve just heard from our friend Antoine Baglan, who manages the database for Association KWATA in Cayenne, French Guiana. (Antoine is also, incidentally, an amazing nature photographer.)

You know, of course, the story of Lily Rose, and why she is so special to us.

But do you remember Riley? Riley used to keep us up at night. She was one of the first Canadian leatherbacks that we tracked right into Cape Cod Bay, where she navigated the maze of fishing gear for many days. I remember Scott Landry, the director of Marine Animal Entanglement Response at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, reviewing one of the daily Riley updates we sent and saying, “Wow. This just gets worse.”

But she thankfully got out and continued to swim down the coast of the United States. Riley was kind of like Beverly. We had tagged her as part of the Great Canadian Turtle Race, and she behaved differently from the rest of the turtles we were following that year. You can see her track below in red.

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And then after almost seven months of tracking, Riley’s tag stopped.

So we are thrilled to hear about her and to know that she is safe and nesting—and we are also excited to learn where she is from, which we didn’t know when we tagged her!

Below is an updated map on the turtles we’re following now. Beverly continues to entertain us with her track, looping around and down again now.

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Look how far Sharon has gone! I love seeing her zip past all of those islands. You can see this in more detail in this map:

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But it’s Christie we’re watching most closely now. She’s still in the nesting zone.

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Her current location is off Toco point, which is a busy fishing area and the place where we lost contact with Peggy. Let’s hope she pulls a Riley and makes it through safely.

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Sargassum and turtle tracks

There have been a lot of developments at Matura Beach of late. We’ve been keeping a close eye on Christie and Sharon, our nesting turtles. As we found out when we tracked Peggy two years ago, there is no guarantee a leatherback will make it through the entire cycle of nesting safely.

And this year, there has been an added challenge. Sargassum in unprecedented amounts has landed at Matura, making it next to impossible for leatherbacks to nest there or for any hatchlings to make it to the sea. This is a video of our friend Kyle from the Nature Seekers. You will see him walk directly over the beach and almost 60 metres (200 feet) onto what is normally the ocean, but what is now a dense mat of sargassum.

The next video shows how deep and strong the sargassum bed is as it withstands the slapping waves.

So it has not been entirely surprising that neither Christie nor Sharon have been seen at Matura. In good news, according to our satellite data, it seems that Christie nested last night. She landed a little south of Matura Beach at Fishing Pond.

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Sharon, on the other hand, has finished nesting. She is heading north! We are amazed at how quickly she is going. This is the first time we will have ever watched a known “Canadian” turtle on this part of their journey. We can’t wait to find out what comes next.

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Here is the larger map, where you can also see Beverly’s track. She’s going west—which may mean back toward us, ultimately. However, in what we might call typical Beverly style, she isn’t heading in a predictable way. You’ll note she’s swimming north at the moment. Sometimes I feel like Beverly’s our teenager-of-a-turtle. She’s endearing that way.

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Sharon joins the turtle crew

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And now there are three turtles to follow again.

Our friends at the Nature Seekers satellite tagged another “Canadian” turtle at Matura Beach, Trinidad, that we have named Sharon. She is the blue dot, just below Christie’s green dot.

Here is a closer look at Sharon’s movements over the last few weeks:

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And here is a closer look at Christie’s track:

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Both turtles are hanging near the coast. As you may remember, leatherbacks nest several times during a season. The days between each nesting event are called the “internesting interval.” During this time, while the next clutch of eggs is developing, the turtles are typically close to shore and within about 100 kilometers of their nesting beaches.

The part about this normal behaviour that makes us uneasy is that the turtles’ chance of entanglement in fishing gear at this time of year is high. So we’re doing the only thing we can: crossing our fingers and hoping that Sharon and Christie stay safe.

We’re also keeping an eye on Beverly, whom you may have noticed has turned and started swimming west again—perhaps on her way back home.

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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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No more Christie

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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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