Tag Archives: WIDECAST

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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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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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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Meet Beverly

It has been a slow leatherback season so far. Lots of turtle-less days on the water. So we are thrilled to tell you that we have now satellite tagged Beverly!

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She is a female leatherback and she had flipper tags from Trinidad. We checked with Kyle at the Nature Seekers and they last saw Beverly nesting in Trinidad in 2013. That means there is a good chance she’ll nest again this coming spring. If that is the case, hopefully she’ll be found by our friends in Trinidad. If so, we’ll get her satellite transmitter back.

This map shows how far Beverly has to swim between Nova Scotia and Trinidad. Beverly’s position is marked with the red dot. Trinidad is off the northeast tip of South America and is circled in black.

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But it’ll be more than a month before Beverly starts her trek south. At the moment, we’re really interested in how she is traveling in Canada. We find her track extremely interesting because she is hugging the coast of Nova Scotia. Although we expected her to continue to head up toward Cape Breton Island, it is unusual to see a turtle swimming quite so close to shore. This map shows you what I mean.

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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 4

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I took these photographs of a group of hatchlings we found on an afternoon walk on Matura Beach the next day.

My friend Francis from the Nature Seekers brought me hatchlings to see.

He met us at the bottom of the road to the beach in the dark at the start of the night. He motioned for me with a grin. He was holding two of them. They had just scrambled from a nest a ways down the beach.

He knew I had never seen a hatchling before. All the leatherbacks in Canada are mature—or almost mature—adults. We measure their size by the length of their carapace (top shell), and the leatherbacks I see off Nova Scotia have carapace lengths of at least 130 cm.

These gorgeous little leatherbacks fit in the palm of my hand. I could feel as I held them gently between my fingers their fine body structures: the rib cage expanding and contracting, the delicate bones in the flippers.

Many hours later—around 2:30 in the morning—I was alone walking a stretch of beach and deep in a pit in the sand was one little hatchling. I couldn’t see any other hatchlings around, so this one must have been a straggler. It was trying to climb out of the pit—and it had many metres to go to the sea beyond it.

I picked it up and brought it closer to the shoreline—still so it would have a run of beach before it hit the water—but closer. I was amazed to watch how quickly it moved once it was on relatively flat ground, pulled forward by its elegant front flippers.

We still didn’t find the CAN turtle. Eight more hours of searching.

But oh, the hatchlings!

Climbing up over the uneven beach to the sea.

Climbing up over the uneven beach to the sea.

Made it!

Made it!

Me (Kathleen Martin) with a hatchling leatherback.

Me (Kathleen Martin) with a hatchling leatherback.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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