Monday, November 3, 2008

Getting to know our Turtles

The 2008 turtle nesting season is just about over for Antigua’s turtles, although there are still nests hatching almost every week. With only one year of nesting data behind us, we were not sure what we would find this year, but thankfully the turtles have been coming back in their numbers. Final figures are not in yet, but we can estimate that we have seen a similar level of nesting as in 2007, when we had 173 total nesting crawls. Leatherbacks accounted for 35 of last year’s nests while Hawksbills were responsible for the rest.
This year we had a similar pattern, with the addition of several Green turtle nests. Though Green turtles are common in Barbuda, this was the first time any of our patrollers had observed Greens nesting in Antigua. Greens, like the one shown here can be extremely large and they make elaborate nests, adding alot of excitement to the regular patrols. One of the new elements of the turtle project this year was the use of flipper tags as a means of identifying individual turtles. Tagging provides important information on population trends, movement, and reproductive patterns of the turtles. Once applied the tags typically last for many years, so returning turtles or turtles found in other waters can be quickly identified. Our project uses flipper tags, which consist of a small metal clamp (similar to a livestock tag) with a unique code imprinted on them. The tag is attached to the front flipper using a special applicator and that individual turtle can then be identified by anyone that encounters it by the unique tag code. Although the tags are applied very quickly and cause little pain, it can still be somewhat disconcerting at first (for both the turtle and the tagger!). However the value of getting to know our individual turtle mothers is undoubtedly worth the inconvenience. Most of the turtle projects in the Caribbean use tags provided by the Marine Turtle Tagging Centre in Barbados, so that any turtle tagged in the region can be traced back to a central database.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Hotels Join in on Turtle Conservation

This morning I received a call from Terry, the Watersports Manager at Jolly Beach Hotel. Members of the watersports team had discovered a freshly hatched turtle nest on the beach just in front of the hotel. Tiny hatchling tracks near the building led them to two hatchlings wandering the beach and finally the nest site.
This nest happened to made by a Green Turtle, the least common nesting species around Antigua. For many of us this was in fact the first time that we had seen green turtle hatchlings. The eggs and the hatchlings were surprisingly large. Unfortunately the little one below did not make it out of the nest alive. However, the quick efforts of the guys at Jolly Beach ensured that several other stranded turtles did not meet the same fate. Terry recorded all the nest information on our "Beach Observations" datasheet allowing us to inlcude this event in our island wide study of turtle nesting habits.
Having recently participated in our project's training workshops on conservation and research of nesting turtles, we are extrememly proud of the prompt response of the watersports team at Jolly Beach - they did an excellent job in their first "official" turtle mission! It is wonderful that they have been able to put their knowledge to use and become an active part of Antigua's conservation efforts.
Across the island at St. James Club, we received a similar call this weekend reporting a fresh hawksbill turtle nest. Staff had clearly marked the area and everyone was very anxious to enure that the nest would not be harmed despite being deposited in a very busy area just at the doorway of a guest room. Our patrols visited the nest site and we are now all closely monitoring until the hatchlings are due.

Each year, our specially designed workshops for hotels on turtle nesting beaches aim to provide key hotel staff with basic awareness on sea turtle ecology along with best practice guidelines for sea turtle encounters and maintenance of nesting beaches. Staff are also trained in collecting basic information using our simple "Beach Observation" data sheet. Several hotels have recently completed workshops including Jolly Beach, St. James Club, Sandals Antigua Village, Pineapple Beach, Rex Hawksbill Hotel, Rex Halcyon, Hermitage Bay, and Galley Bay. We hope that this will be a start in making beaches around the island a little more turtle-friendly, and the locals and guests a little more welcoming :).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Hatchlings Have Arrived!

Last week 76 young and eager hawksbill turtle hatchlings emerged from their nest on Jabberwock beach (above) and made their first tracks to sea. A regular morning beach goer immediately noticed the unmistakeable signs of tiny flipper marks in the sand and reported his findings to Junior, our leading patrol officer. Junior confirmed the sighting just a few hours later, marking our first hatched nest on that beach for the 2008 nesting season.

The nest had been deposited in mid-June, gestating for just over sixty days. Hawksbills will deposit about five nests or egg clutches in one nesting season, often returning to the same beach each time. Hawksbills are notoriously picky in their choice of nest site often attempting as many as 3 separate nests before deciding on the final site. Prime sites like this one shown below are usually ones that are well protected by beach vegetation yet not inundated with roots.
After the laying process, the turtle will carefully cover and disguise her nest before returning to the ocean. Other than the protection of the nest, the offspring will fend for themselves from this point onward, relying on instinct and a lot of luck to survive. Once the hatchlings have matured inside the nest, they start breaking free of their shell, creating a chain reaction of movement and digging in the nest which pushes them gradually upwards. Should the hatchlings arrive near the surface of the sand in daylight, the heat produces a lifesaving immobilizing effect. If the hatchlings were to burst forth into the open sunlight, they would risk intense dehydrating heat and daytime predators. Once the day cools down the turtles recover from the spell and continue their upward journey (image below taken from
Our first Jabberwock nest would have broken the surface sometime between sunset and sunrise on the night of August 3rd, 2008. Junior and Andrea were able to find out more about the nest by analysing the eggshell remains. We know that 76 hatchlings made it out alone and our team also released two more lucky hatchlings, who hadn’t made it out of the nest on their own. Sadly, it is normal that all hatchlings simply don’t make it to the surface. We found seven dead, some still in their shells and one that was missing a right flipper. Sad as this may be, the odds weren’t bad for this nest, at the end of the day we had 78 new hatchlings swimming the seas!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Half Moon at the Full Moon

This past Friday night was a lovely full moon and some of our patrols headed out to Half Moon Bay on the east coast of Antigua to meet up with the 2nd Antigua Boys Brigade. Half Moon Bay is one of our monitored turtle nesting beaches, and the boy scouts had planned one of their summer camping trips hoping to help out with turtle patrols. Their leader, Mr. Campbell Coates, is a member of the EAG and was keen to get his young recruits involved in turtle watching. The scouts would help out by walking the beach at intervals throughout the night, checking for signs of turtle nesting - tracks, new nests, or if we were lucky, a nesting hawksbill turtle. Donald, one of our volunteer patrollers and I arrived at Half Moon Bay a little before sun down and we could see the scouts setting up camp on the far end of the beach. There were about 18 young boys, all clearly excited to be spending the night out there. We gave a short talk on turtle nesting and then set out on our second patrol with some of the boys. Even though they had asked questions before they were all keen to know exactly what we were looking for. Almost none of these boys had ever seen a turtle before.
We couldn't help but be amused as these 14 year old kids addressed each other as "Sargeant" and "Private" during the patrols and then called for a retreat every time they neared the old hotel ruins. Later that night our scouts' Leader, Campbell found a hawksbill nest that we had missed that had probably been deposited just two nights before. I guess that's why he's the leader! There were no turtles to be seen that night but it looked like everyone had a good time exchanging tales under the full moon and braving the darkest corners of Half Moon Bay.
We'll look forward to seeing these scouts again!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Turtle Patrols out on the Beaches

The majority of turtles found nesting on our beaches are either Hawksbills, which are renowned for their golden brown shell,

or Leatherbacks, the largest and most impressive of turtle species.

Sea turtles live in the water their entire lives, but return to land as adults to lay their eggs. This short time on land is an important opportunity for collecting information about them.

Six turtle nesting sites around Antigua have been under the close watch of volunteer beach patrols since the nesting season began in April. About a dozen volunteers including about six new recruits make up the patrol teams this year. Many patrollers have no previous experience and have been trained from scratch in sea turtle conservation and nesting habits, enabling them to identify turtle tracks, nest sites, and collect important data on nesting patterns on our beaches. Patrols will continue throughout the turtle nesting season until mid-November.

Above, Andrea is shown sorting the contents of a hatched nest on Jabberwock beach. One of the things that motivate our volunteers is the great odds that turtles face in the fight for survival. Juvenile turtles are easy prey for a number of other species including crabs, dogs, mongoose, birds, and fish. Larger turtles however have few natural predators, but often fall victim to human activities. Drowning from entanglement in fishing gear (turtles breather air) or ingestion of marine debris are common causes of turtle fatality. Hunting, as well as destruction of feeding and nesting areas also contributes to their decline. In fact, it is estimated that only 1 in 1000 sea turtles will survive to adulthood and lay her own eggs! Many of the turtles spotted in our waters are in fact quite small, and still have many years ahead of them before they will produce offspring of their own.

Persons interested in volunteering for beach patrols or reporting information on turtle nesting should call the Sea Turtle Hotline at (268) 720 6955.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome to the Antigua Sea Turtle Project!

Sea turtles have roamed our seas for over 110 million years and nested on the Caribbean’s shores long before they were settled. Despite this, sea turtles have become extremely threatened in recent decades. In 2007, Antigua’s Environmental Awareness Group (Antigua’s primary Environmental NGO) launched the Antigua Sea Turtle Conservation Project, an effort to monitor and protect our own endangered turtle populations. The project has two major components: 1) identifying important turtle nesting sites and surveying local nesting populations; and 2) raising awareness of the importance of sea turtles and their coastal and marine habitats.

This blog has been created to spread the word about the work of this project and keep you up to date on our findings. For further information feel free to contact our Project Director and WIDECAST Country Coordinator, Mykl Clovis Fuller by email / Tel. (268) 720 6955. Thanks for joining us!