Tag Archives: Nature of Things

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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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 today

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Here is Margaret’s map from this morning. She’s not as close to shore as she was last night. She’s wandering a bit…pretty common leatherback behaviour.

For fun, we’ve put together a “When and where will Margaret first nest?” poll. You can participate here. People who guess correctly will be entered into a draw for a CSTN hat.

 

 

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Which will it be?

As of a few minutes ago, Margaret is approximately 20 kilometres from Grande Riviere beach and 40 kilometres from Matura beach. We’re really excited here. Scott arrives in Trinidad in a few days and our friends on the nesting beaches are on the alert. Maybe she’ll nest tonight. Or tomorrow. Or not. Leatherbacks are funny that way.

In great news, Margaret’s tag is sending good locations again.

I’ll post an updated map in the morning.

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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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