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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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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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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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The beeline

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Today there is good news and not-so-good news about Margaret.

The good news is that she is making a beeline for the nesting beaches of Trinidad. Check out this map.

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She left coastal Barbados three days ago, and look at how close she is to Trinidad already! The nesting season has already started there, although peak season is still about two months away.

2014_02_27_Map_TrinidadIn the Atlantic, mature female leatherback turtles do not nest every year. They nest every two or three years. During their nesting years, they will generally lay around eight nests, about 10 days apart. In 2011, Margaret was recorded nesting both at Matura and Grande Riviere beaches in Trinidad. We’ve contacted our colleagues who work on those beaches, and we will continue to keep them posted about Margaret’s location. We hope that they will find her when she nests and remove her valuable transmitter so we can deploy it on another leatherback in Canada.

The not-so-good news is that the quality of the locations we’ve received from Margaret’s transmitter over the past few days has not been good. I yelled “No!” out loud this morning when Devan, our turtle technician, told me that the last series of locations were  “B” class. B-class locations are the poorest quality, and generally indicate that only two tag transmissions were received by the satellite to calculate the turtle’s position. The more transmissions the satellite receives, the better its estimate of the turtle’s location.

A long series of B location estimates—especially over several days—can mean the turtle is spending very little time at the surface of the water. It can also mean that the tag is running low on battery power or has started to “biofoul.” Biofouling is when organisms like algae and barnacles colonize on the tag. This can negatively impact the tag’s performance.

This may mean that we will lose transmissions from Margaret’s transmitter altogether—even before she makes it to the nesting beach. (You may remember this is what happened with Jacquelyn.) It doesn’t mean, however, that someone won’t find Margaret on the beach anyway. Last year, dedicated beach workers in Colombia found our turtle Red Rockette after her transmitter had stopped working. It’s just a lot harder to do.

I hate when this happens just when the animals are so close to nesting! But at least we know where Margaret is heading. Stay tuned…

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