Tag Archives: Grande Riviere

Back on track

The sea turtle field season, which has just ended, is our most exciting time. It is also our busiest. For two months we work weekdays and weekends with lots of long hours. By the end we are tired…but still always sorry it’s over.

I had hoped to write more often over the summer, but I fell behind. Instead, I’ll fill you in on tales from the field over the next few weeks.

First, of course, is what is up with Beverly. If you look at the map below, you’ll see that she’s been joined by two other turtles: Asha and Christie whom we tagged the first week of August.

Here is a map of the three tracks on August 8.

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Here it is a bit closer up.

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And here is where the turtles are today.

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This is what Asha looks like.

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We weighed her, and she came in at just over 400 kilograms (almost 900 pounds). Her curved carapace length or CCL (the length over the curve of her top shell) was 158.4 cm. We don’t know where Asha is from, and we don’t know whether or not she’ll nest this season. She’s our mystery turtle for this year.

And this is Christie.

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When we found Christie, she was pretty scraped up. We’re not sure from what exactly. We weren’t able to weigh her, but she measured 159.2 CCL. Just a smidge bigger than Asha. Like Beverly, Christie is also a Trinidad turtle. She’s due to nest again this spring, which is exciting. She’s nested both at Matura Beach and at Grande Rivière in past years.

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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 5

Tonight we went to Grande Rivière, the beach where Margaret nested. It is a two-hour drive up the winding Toco Main Road from Matura. It took us a little longer on the way there. We were running low on diesel for Scott’s truck. They had run out of fuel at the gas station up at Toco, so we had to start our trip by going in the opposite direction—half an hour down to Valencia and then back again.

We were excited to go and meet the team that found Margaret and to see Margaret’s beach. “The turtles love Grande Rivière!” one of the beach monitoring team called out to me. Indeed. Sometimes there are a hundred leatherbacks at a time. A hundred at a time.

The beach is only about a kilometre long. This means the density of animals is incredible—turtles nesting on top of each other’s nests, digging up each other’s eggs—turtles trying to climb over each other—turtles everywhere. There are resorts and homes that are close to the beach at Grande Rivière, too. I watched one leatherback crawl under a child’s swing and into someone’s backyard to nest!

But the most incredible thing we saw was this:

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Look carefully just to the right of the turtle’s flipper. You can see the bottom of the sword. Then follow straight up to see where the shaft comes out. There are barnacles clinging to the top, which can make it hard to find in the photograph at first.

 

It is a leatherback nesting with the sword from a billfish slammed straight through its body.

It would have been something to see—the fish—likely a swordfish or marlin—slashing its sword through the water to stun the smaller prey fish around it, then somehow, mistakenly, driving that sword (with clearly incredible force) through the leatherback. And then the fish becoming stuck in the turtle. So stuck that its sword broke off.

Wow.

And the leatherback turtle survived. (The fish likely did not.) Not only did she survive, but here she was, nesting.

“We’re going to take that right out,” said Scott cheerfully, as Devan, Mike and I stood, shocked, by the turtle. “I’ve seen this once before.” Scott promptly dug his Leatherman tool from his backpack, clamped onto the sword, and heaved upward. The sword came out. There was almost no blood—just a nasty smell. The leatherback’s body had encased the sword in a kind of sleeve. Sealed it off. We could look deep into the tunnel it left behind.

“That should close right up,” said Scott. “I’m going to bleach this. We’ll send it out to some billfish folks and figure out what kind of sword it is.”

This is Scott holding the sword just after he's taken it out.

This is Scott holding the sword just after he’s taken it out.

The sword rattled around in the back of the truck on the way home. (It was way too stinky to have in the cab with us. As we made the sharp turns back down the road, it nudged up along Devan’s backpack in the truck bed. He had to wash his bag three times to get the smell out.)

This is a photograph of Nivon, one of the Nature Seekers, sitting out front at Suzan’s Guest House back in Matura. Scott had the sword soaking in a bleach solution all day. Nivon held the cleaned sword and turned it over and over in his hands while Scott told him the story. “These leatherbacks are amazing creatures,” he said—first in wonder—and then in triumph. “Amazing creatures!”

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Trinidad, Day 1

Photo on 2014-05-29 at 6.40 PM

This is my view right now. It is early evening, there is a rooster crowing, there are birds chirping (somewhere there are parrots!), and I can’t wait for the sun to set.

We are at Matura in Trinidad. I’m here with Devan, our CSTN turtle technician, and Canadian sea turtle expert Dr. Mike James. A film crew from NHK Enterprises in Japan is working on a leatherback turtle documentary. They have invited the CSTN to be part of it, and the first segment they are filming takes place here.

We were delighted to have the chance to come back to Trinidad. Mike and Devan were here last year with the wonderful film crew who made the Nature of Things documentary. I haven’t been here since March of 1998. This is the beach where Dr. Scott Eckert first trained Mike and me to satellite tag leatherbacks.

Scott is here, as are our friends from the Nature Seekers. (We will meet up with our friends up at Grande Rivière later in the week.) And very soon, when it starts to get dark, we will head to the beach to see the nesting leatherback turtles.

We’re searching for “Canadian” leatherbacks. If we find them, we will satellite tag two of them and hopefully get the first complete track of a Canadian leatherback turtle from the nesting beach to the waters off Atlantic Canada. We tried to do this with Peggy the turtle last year, but she was caught in fishing gear within a few weeks, and didn’t make it north.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a nesting leatherback turtle. I’m a little nervous, like you feel before you meet a friend you haven’t seen in years. Everyone is getting ready around me. Scott just appeared in the hall dressed in field gear, carrying his giant blue backpack. Mike and Devan are across the way doing yet one-more-check over the scientific equipment we need tonight in case we put out a tag. The film crew is already at the beach.

I need to turn on the light to finish this post, so the sun is almost down. Turtle time!

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More Margaret…and more and more turtles

Margaret (in front) and (from left to right) Sheldon Murray, Kevin Muhammad, Trishara Hernandez, Latresa Mayers and Ria Steward-- our friends in Trinidad from the Grand Rivière Nature Tour Guide Association and Stakeholders Against Destruction. Photo courtesy of Kevin Muhammad.

Margaret (in front) and (from left to right) Sheldon Murray, Kevin Muhammad, Trishara Hernandez, Latresa Mayers and Ria Steward– our friends in Trinidad from the Grande Rivière Nature Tour Guide Association and Stakeholders Against Destruction. Photo courtesy of Kevin Muhammad.

Mike James received an email from our friends at Grande Rivière with the subject line: “Your baby.”

“I was on the beach last night facilitating a tag training session with Toco folks and look who I ran into,” wrote Kevin Muhammad.

Margaret!

She was back nesting again (likely for the third time by this point) and she looked terrific. This is a photo of the team that found her along with Margaret herself.

It’s been an exciting few weeks at the beaches in Trinidad. On Matura beach, the Nature Seekers found seven Canadian turtles nesting! They could tell they were “our” turtles by reading their flipper tags. 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.

Here’s what we know about the leatherbacks they found:

  1. We caught one of them last August just a few hours before we caught and satellite-tagged Margaret! When we caught this turtle we didn’t know she was from Trinidad. (When we caught Margaret, she had flipper tags that had been applied in Trinidad, so we knew she was a Trinidad nester.)
  1. We flipper tagged one of the leatherbacks in 2011.
  1. Two of the turtles were previously satellite tagged. One of them in 2005 and the other in 2012.

We are particularly excited to hear news of the turtle from 2012. She had been entangled in fishing gear when we found her. We cleared her of the gear before we put the tag on her and were interested to watch how she managed after the entanglement. We are thrilled to hear that she is healthy and nesting now!

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Margaret nests!

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It was almost 4 a.m. when my cell phone rang. We had been up late following Margaret’s tracks over the previous few days, so I was sleeping soundly. It took me a minute to figure out what was going on. It was Stephen Poon, from the wildlife division of the government of Trinidad and Tobago, on the phone with the great news that Margaret was, at that moment, nesting. The team from Grande Rivière had seen her as she hauled up onto the beach and were waiting until she had begun laying her eggs before they removed her transmitter.

Dr. Mike James, our scientific advisor, talked to Nicholas Alexander from the Grand Rivière team shortly after Margaret was finished her nest and had returned to the sea.

“Your turtle looked great!” Nicholas said immediately.

One of the things I love about sea turtle people is how they intuitively know—amongst all of the things that there are to talk about on an occasion like this—what is most important: How was Margaret herself? Because as critical as the data and the transmitter are, it is the turtle we care about the most. And Nicholas, with years of experience observing leatherbacks on the beach, was an excellent person to judge.

Next, Nicholas assured Mike that the transmitter was also in good shape. Stephen Poon would make sure we received it. At some point soon, we hope we will also get photographs of the event. (I’ll post them as soon as we have them.)

Margaret laid her eggs, covered up her nest, and headed back out to sea. She’ll be off in the ocean for another 10 days and then will come back to nest again—about eight times in total this season. With luck, the team at Grande Rivière will see her again, allowing us to hear a little bit more about our girl—and to know that she’s safe out there.

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One for the turtles!

On the days when we look and look for leatherbacks at sea and come up empty, or those times when we miss catching the one (or more!) turtles we do see, I’m often oddly satisfied. It’s better, certainly, when we are able to do as much work as possible at sea. It’s incredibly frustrating and sometimes demoralizing when the days slip by and there is no leatherback to show for all of our effort.

But there is something I like about the turtles evading us. There is something that makes me feel safe about nature out of our grasp—even when we are trying to help.

We have been watching Margaret’s movements carefully as she navigates along the north coast of Trinidad. You can see them in these maps. (You’ll note some of the positions show up on land. This is because there is a margin of error in each of the good quality locations we get of up to about 500 metres.)

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We are transfixed by the patterns of positions that pop up over the hours her tag is transmitting. And we are puzzled. Other leatherbacks we have tracked zeroed in on their beach and nested directly after reaching the coast. They haven’t done what Margaret is doing. For three nights she has returned to nearshore waters directly off Grande Rivière beach; she may even have crawled out of the surf zone a few times, but we’re pretty sure she hasn’t nested yet.

Margaret, no doubt, knows just what she’s doing. But we are unsure. Not in a worried way yet. But in a good, curious, what-on-earth-is-she-up-to-and-why way. I wish we knew exactly. It’s like an itch you can’t properly scratch.

It’s that space where we realize that although we’ve learned a lot about leatherbacks over the last fifteen years of our work, there is still so much that is mysterious about them. There is still so much we discover as the hours pass.

Maybe tonight Margaret’s return to Grande Rivière will finally culminate in a nest, or maybe she’ll keep us guessing.

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Still near coast

The team at Grande Riviere did not find Margaret last night. We have gotten new hits in the last hour from her tag showing her just 3 kilometres west of Grande Riviere beach. We’re still waiting to see what she’s going to do…and compulsively checking every few minutes for new data!

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Maybe Grande Riviere tonight?

A few minutes ago we got a good-quality satellite hit from Margaret–she’s about 1.5 kilometres off the nesting beach at Grande Riviere! The team on the beach there is out in full force looking for her in case she nests tonight! Lots of excited calls and texts between the turtle teams in Canada and Trinidad. Stay tuned!

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Margaret Update

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Take a look! Margaret is just off the coast of Grande Riviere, Trinidad. If you haven’t already, take a second to guess when and where she will nest: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/MKW8TZ6

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