Tag Archives: flipper tag

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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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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Plots thicken

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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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Asha’s track is finished

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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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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?

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Trinidad—Last Day

No CAN turtle. Not on Grande Rivière and not on Matura—despite lots of effort looking. It reminds me how lucky we were to come across Peggy last year. The film crew from NHK has left Suzan’s Guest House. We’ll see them again up at our Cape Breton field site in August.

It never really occurred to me that we wouldn’t find our CAN turtle to satellite tag. I knew it wasn’t a guarantee, but I thought it would happen because it would have been a good thing—it would have given us important scientific data. I thought it would happen because we tried hard—because we wanted it to.

I know that nature doesn’t work that way. It’s part of what I love about the environment and humans’ relationship with it. But it’s still incredibly frustrating!

Mike and Kyle

Mike and Kyle

“We know we’ll find her when you leave!” laughed Kyle Mitchell, one of the Nature Seekers. He manages their database, and is the person who sends us information on the CAN turtles they find at Matura. He knows how excited we get when he emails. (Mike, in particular, greets each new tag recovery with incredible enthusiasm—as though someone is calling with news about an old friend.)

On our last afternoon in Trinidad—after hours and hours of hiking each night—Scott said, “And for fun, let’s go hiking!”

He brought us on a trail through the jungle.

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(“I always hope I’ll see a bushmaster on this trail,” Scott said to me as we walked. “They are so cool.” I knew Mike would be equally pleased. I, however, had my fingers crossed that the big venomous pit viper would stay away.)

It was a beautiful hike down a path mostly marked by the large, twisting roots of trees. The trail ended at a waterfall that crashed into a green-blue pool. Devan, Mike, Scott and I were the only people there.

I followed along the yellow rope tied across the pool to help swimmers brace themselves against the power of the waterfall. I held myself under it as it drenched my face and roared in my ears. Then I floated on my back, letting its current push me away. I watched the sky. The sunlight slipped down through the layers of leaves high above me—some wispy, some shiny green, some slatted like blinds. I watched their patterns shifting in the breeze.

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Trinidad Day 3

Canadian sea turtle team on the beach! Dr. Mike James and Devan Archibald at Matura in the late afternoon.

Canadian sea turtle team on the beach! Dr. Mike James and Devan Archibald at Matura in the late afternoon.

 

Tracks made by leatherbacks nesting the night before crisscross Matura Beach.

Tracks made by leatherbacks nesting the night before crisscross Matura Beach.

 

Sargassum carpeting swaths of Matura Beach.

Sargassum carpeting swaths of Matura Beach.

Walking across Matura Beach is like walking through drifted snow. You never know how far your feet will sink below you as you climb the uneven ground. In the pitch darkness of night, we fall down like kids.

The mounds of sand are records of big leatherbacks nesting. The turtles use their front flippers to create a body pit in the ground and then later to disguise their nest by throwing sand in all directions around them.

This year, Matura is covered in dense, black sargassum, broken off from the Sargasso Sea. It lays over the white sand beach in endless pillowy clumps. It reminds me of peat moss.

The only reliably flat place is in the hard-packed sand right by the water. There, however, even in places that seem above the tidemark, the ever-shifting waves can unexpectedly douse your sneakers.

We walked back and forth across several kilometers of beach, checking every leatherback we saw for Canadian flipper tags with no luck. According to our records and the nesting records the Nature Seekers have, there should have been a few Canadian turtles on the beach last night.

We looked for eight hours straight, stopping briefly under the stars for the delicious banana bread that Erica in the Guest House kitchen sent with us for a snack. We drove home finally at about 4 a.m.

Maybe tomorrow.

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Trinidad, Day 2

[Note: We had inconsistent Internet access while we were in Trinidad, so I was unable to upload my blog posts. I will run them a day at a time this week instead.]

 

We saw dozens of turtles last night. It was amazing.

At one point I stood near the edge of the water in the darkness with three enormous leatherbacks emerging from the surf around me simultaneously. The white roiling water swept over the black masses of their bodies as they inched their way slowly up the beach.

I was alone at that moment. Devan, Mike and Scott were walking further down the beach looking for turtles.

I had to will myself to stand there in the starlight.

I was overwhelmed.

Leatherbacks have been doing this for millions of years. Millions.

It was something to be there, the wind off the water whipping loudly around me, watching. Being blessed by the primeval.

We walked the beach for eight solid hours last night. We checked the flipper tags of every turtle we saw, but we found no Canadian leatherbacks.

Maybe tonight.

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