Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A new beginning.....

Meet Nigel, the hawksbill turtle hatchling, photo Elke Talma

Nigel has spent the past 2 months buried in the sand together with 175 of his brothers and sisters. After he hatched from his egg, he spent 2 to 3 days crawling through the sand column to reach the surface. As he and the rest of his siblings reached the last 10 cm of the sand column, where the sand is hotter, they stopped and waited..

Turtle hatchlings usually emerge from the sand at dusk when most of their predators are sleeping. Lying in wait within the sand column, they know its getting dark because the sand begins to cool. After some frantic scrambling, they cautiously peek over the rim of the nest area, looking for the brightest point on the horizon before making a mad dash to the sea, while trying desperately to avoid nocturnal crabs and other predators, lying in wait.

In this case, however, Nigel had some assistance. MCSS, funded by the Banyan Tree Resort’s Green Imperative Fund, runs a Nesting Turtle Monitoring Programme on Anse Intendance, South Mahe Island, Seychelles. Part of the turtle programme involves monitoring turtle nests during the 2 month incubation period, after which they are excavated to look at the egg clutch survivorship.

A hawksbill turtle hatchling emerges from an emergence dip, photo Sam Bonham

In the case of Nigel’s nest, an emergence dip (a shallow depression in the ground indicating a hatched nest) was observed and the nest was dug out by the research team. Imagine our surprise to find the hatchlings still in the nest (usually we get to deal with rotting eggs and maggots).

After alerting the hotel reception, so they could advise their clients of the happy event, we gathered all the hatchlings and moved them to a more suitable location on the beach for release. A study in Australia has shown that about 97% of hatchlings die within the first hour of hitting the water due to predation by reef fish and other animals. In light of this, we try to release any hatchlings we find in the nest during excavation in spots along the beach were there is no adjacent reef area. The hatchlings are then allowed to crawl down the beach, thus giving them a chance to imprint to solar radiation patterns and to assist their return to their nesting beach in 20 to 25 years time to mate and nest.

The first crawl down the beach can be a dangerous adventure for a turtle hatchling,photo Sam Bonham

Once in the water, Nigel swims perpendicular to oncoming waves and will travel many hundreds of kilometres until he reaches the drift line where he will stay for the next 10 to 15 years before returning to shore to begin the next phase of his life cycle as a juvenile.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cable & Wireless Seychelles support for MCSS

Telephone company and internet service provider Cable & Wireless (Atlas) Seychelles have recently confirmed an upgrade of their long and on-going relationship with MCSS.

In 2003, we at MCSS established an office with full-time staff and developed our web site, www.mcss.sc which was one of the first of the .sc Seychelles domains if not the first. The sites purpose was to support our activities and act as an information resource on marine life and conservation issues in Seychelles. After discussions with Atlas and Cable & Wireless a sponsorship package was agreed giving us business level access to the internet for a set low monthly fee. This was in the days before broadband and we have relied on a dial-up system since that date.

Due to the success of our on-going long-term monitoring programmes, we now support up to eight volunteers or research students at any one time, providing them with direct access and field training experience. Ever since our inception MCSS has advocated the use of cutting edge technology to provide conservation benefits. We have successfully implemented a web-based data-portal for Seychelles turtle monitoring activities in conjunction with VCS, as well as the deployment of two satellite tags on turtles that relay information to us via the internet. With the possibility of more satellite tags to be deployed later this season increased internet access was needed!

A hawksbill turtle fitted with a satellite tag by MCSS in 2007, photo Gilberte Gendron

With this reliance on the internet for access to our data, as well as reference sources and links back to the various Universities our students come from, we were constrained by the dial-up access. Fortunately Cable & Wireless / Atlas Seychelles have agreed to upgrade our access to broad-band status on X‑Net with a similar subsidised package.

X-Net ADSL is now up and running and is already making life significantly easier for both staff and volunteers alike, although the local internet cafes will probably miss the regular visits of the volunteers to check their e-mails!

A big thank you to Cable & Wireless / Atlas Seychelles for their continued support and to their staff for their assistance and getting the X-net system installed!

Meet the Turtle Officers from Constance Lemuria Resort

In November 2006, MCSS was asked to assist with the Turtle Monitoring Programme at Constance Lemuria Resort on Praslin Island, the second largest and second most developed island in Seychelles. Training in Standard Turtle Monitoring Techniques used in Seychelles was carried out by MCSS Research Officer, Elke Talma for Lemuria staff in November 2006, September 2007 and more recently, on the 20th of September 2008.

The main nesting beach at Lemuria Resort on Praslin Island, photo Lemuria Resort

With the recent launch of the MCSS turtle blog, we have asked the 2008 Turtle Officers from Lemuria Resort to introduce themselves:

Meet Robert …

Hi, my name is Robert Matombe and I am a landscape supervisor at Constance Lemuria Resort. I have worked there since 2003 and during this time I have been involved in many environmental programmes and courses, where I have learned many things about plant rehabilitation. After being introduced to the Turtle Monitoring Program last year, however, I must admit that it has been a pleasure and privilege to learn about the plight of turtles and to do my bit in protecting those nesting on our beaches. I am always amazed by the struggle of the emerging hatchlings as they make their way into the wide open ocean and with guidance from Elke, I am hoping to make this the best nesting season yet.

Meet Adrian

Hi, my name is Adrian Allison and I am the landscape manager at Constance Lemuria Resort on Praslin Island. I have been here since January 2008 but before that I worked on North Island for 6 months. I originally come from South Africa, which like Seychelles, has unique wildlife and natural habitats that are important attractions for tourist. Nature conservation, therefore, plays a large role for all of the population in both these countries, so it is important to find a balance between nature and people. I have been privileged to play a small role in the monitoring and protecting of the nesting turtle population of Lemuria Resort and have discovered many facts about these creatures. I am now a firm believer that it is important to help save their environment so they will be able to survive for many years to come.

Meet Marvin…

Hi, my name is Marvin Jolicoeur. I have worked at Constance Lemuria Resort on Praslin Island for almost 2 years now and, from time to time, I have assisted with Turtle Monitoring Programme at the Resort. I enjoy it very much and this year I will be joining the Turtle Monitoring Team as a Turtle Officer. I look forward to learning more about turtles and playing a role in protecting them through the actions that I take, either by teaching others about the importance of protecting turtles or simply by ensuring that the turtles nesting on our beaches are not disturbed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A day in the life of a Turtle Officer…

David, my boss (see http://seychelles-whale-sharks.blogspot.com/), has asked me to write about a day in my life as a Turtle Officer. As I have never owned a diary in my life, nor had the desire to share my private thoughts on the internet, I hope you will bear with me.

Every morning I drag my sorry behind out of bed at around 7:30am (I use to jump out of bed with a spring in my step but the increasing daily air temperature and cost of living has a way of sucking the spring right out of you!). By 8:00am I am ready to leave, and head for the MCSS twin cab pick-up truck… otherwise known as my baby!

Elke’s baby; battered by turtle patrols over the years, photo Elke Talma

With luck, I will miss the traffic jam in Victoria as I make my way to the South of Mahé. Assuming I make it through traffic, avoid being stuck behind slow and/or stupid drivers and spot the traffic cops before they catch me on their radar gun, I will get to the first beach by 9:00am. I park in my usual spot (assuming a tourist did not get there first!), collect the turtle bag from the back seat (packed the night before), strap on my digital camera (the 3rd in 2 years, as sand grains are not very camera friendly), clip on my pepper spray (illegal in Seychelles, never been used but handy to have considering that I tend to do beach patrols alone) and grab my mobile phone in case of emergencies … since most of the nesting beaches do not have phone reception its more a security blanket than anything else!

Map of Mahé showing MCSS office and Banyan Tree Resort.

I make my way through the path in the dune vegetation and start trekking along beach #1 (beaches will remain nameless to protect nesting sites). Once on the beach, I usually head South first unless I see something at the North end ... a habit I have no desire to change should anyone want to question this! I walk the entire length of beach #1 looking of nesting turtles or tracks before heading back to the truck. I then make my way to beach #2, #3 etc ... where the process is repeated until I have done 7 beaches.

Aerial shot of Intendance beach in the South of Mahé, photo Elke Talma

While Hawksbill turtles are known to nest all year round in Seychelles, the peak nesting period doesn’t really start until October, so there is not much to see at this time of the year. Every season, the plan is to monitor the prime nesting beaches (known as “morning” beaches) at least 3 times a week during peak nesting period and at least once or twice a week the rest of the year to keep track of hatching nests but also for turtles nesting outside of the peak period.

Hawksbill turtle tracks – if you are lucky you will see one at this time of the year, photo Elke Talma

We have an additional 7 beaches, known as “afternoon” beaches which are less productive but still worth checking. These I do once a week and only between October through to February and try to plan it so I patrol 9 beaches per trip (It used to be 8 beaches a day until I added the 7th morning beach … I am not looking forward to next month!). This means that MCSS monitors 14 nesting beaches compared to the 5 which are covered by Ministry of Environment but between the two organizations, we pretty much cover most of the nesting sites of Mahé and rely on public feedback to report emergences on the remaining beaches.

When I first started turtle monitoring, we had 4 morning beaches but over the years I have expanded on the number and today we have 7 morning beaches … some 6 km worth of walking in the hot, humid tropical sun. By the time I am done with the morning beaches I am ready for lunch in the AIR CONDITIONED staff canteen at Banyan Tree Resort ... one of the perks of having a hotel fund your monitoring activities!

Banyan Tree Resort, main sponsor of the MCSS Turtle programme, photo Elke Talma

After a late lunch I will head back to the office, where I get to download my emails, spend an hour going through them before shutting down the computer for the day and heading home… data entry can wait until the next day!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A turtle called Carol

Carol is the name given to the surviving hawksbill turtle that MCSS had equipped with a hi-tec satellite-relayed GPS tag at the end of last year… and Carol seems set to cause quite a stir in scientific circles!

The impetus for this project came from Barclays Bank Seychelles who wanted to assist MCSS with turtle conservation in Seychelles. Carol was named by Jessica Marengo, the winner of a ‘name-the-turtle, competition organised by MCSS in association with the Ministry of Environment and the Wildlife Clubs of Seychelles as a part of the turtle awareness campaign funded by Barclays Bank Seychelles. This programme was aimed at increasing public awareness of Seychelles turtles through a programme that integrated research into the activities of the schools and Wildlife Clubs as well as re-invigorating public awareness by several competitions including an art contest and a science-project contest. The science project was based on the position information transmitted from Carol’s tag as she moved away from her nesting beaches on the south of Mahe.

Until this project there was no information on the movement patterns of the nesting turtle populations on the developed islands of Mahe and Praslin, nor where they go to forage between nesting seasons. With the support of Barclays Bank, two turtles nesting on the beaches on the South of Mahe were fitted with satellite tracking tags that recorded their movement patterns and diving habits during the following months.

The fast-loc satellite tag used for Carol, photo Elke Talma.

Unfortunately, one of these was killed by a poacher off south Mahe on December 26th 2007 but luckily Carol escaped his rampage and left the area safely. Carol’s location was tracked on-line through the facilities of www.seaturtle.org and were shared with teachers at local schools via the Wildlife Clubs through the internet with Barclays Bank providing two computers to the Wildlife Clubs at the Centre for Environment and Education (Nature Seychelles), Roche Caiman.

Carol fitted with her satellite tag heads back to the sea, photo Gilberte Gendron.

So what is Carol up to that is so surprising? The map in the sidebar on the right tells the story… Carol appears to be living off the Mitsio islands off north-west Madagascar!

In an earlier study five hawksbill turtles were satellite tracked from Cousin Island, a protected nature reserve with almost no human habitation; after nesting, all five moved away from Cousin but stayed on the shallow Seychelles plateau, well inside Seychelles territorial waters. After that study it had been generally accepted that hawksbill turtles in Seychelles were a distinct population that did not migrate to distant or foreign foraging grounds….. until Carol!

On the 23rd of January Carol left south Mahe heading in a southerly direction across the plateau until she reached deep water and then she continued on southwards, past Isle Platte and heading towards Coetivy. In mid-February, she seemed to change her mind and turned due east towards the Mascarene ridge before turning north and then west until she met her original path which she then back-tracked along north towards Mahe. By mid-March she seemed to have regained her navigational bearings and turned south-west and during the next four weeks she passed the Amirantes, Providence and Farquar islands heading straight for north-west Madagascar. On April 27th, it appears that Carol had arrived at her destination off the Mitsio islands just north of Nosy Be, north-west Madagascar, where she seems to be quite happy having been tracked around that area until the present date, the beginning of August!

This long distance migration of over 2350 km was unexpected as was her destination, her foraging grounds off Madagascar. Since her arrival there, her tag has been providing information about her daily diving activities and her exact GPS location and she seems to have settled in to a fairly consistent daily pattern. What is also surprising is the length of time that her tag has stayed active. The original expectations were that the tag’s battery life would be around three months but the tag is still transmitting daily after more than seven months of deployment.

So the question has to be raised is Carol Seychellois or Malagasy? As she was born in Seychelles we think that makes her a Seychellois turtle, even if she seems to prefer to feed around our neighbour’s reefs to the south!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Meet Turtle Chick!

Elke Talma, a.k.a “turtle chick”, is the Research Officer for the Marine Conservation Society, Seychelles (MCSS). Elke has worked with MCSS since 2002 and is in the only full-time paid, employee of MCSS. Originally, she was involved in the Whale Shark Programme (http://seychelles-whale-sharks.blogspot.com) but an aversion to getting wet and being seasick meant she was more than happy to take over the Turtle Monitoring Programme in 2004. She has since expanded the programme to cover a total of 14 nesting beaches on Mahé Island and 3 on Praslin Island, compared to the one beach which was being monitored by MCSS in 2003 when the Turtle Programme was started.

MCSS Research Officer, Elke Talma, photo Alice Reynaud.

Elke has a BSc. honors degree in Marine Biology from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the U.K and while she would be keen to do an MSc., lack of funding, a deep seated fear of statistics and a year round turtle nesting season have so far proven a significant deterrant.

Elke has tagged 61 individual turtles in the past 4 years and prides herself on being one of the few people in Seychelles who regularly gets ‘attacked’ by nesting turtles…fortunately the battle scars are never permanent!

Scars from turtle attacks, self portrait by Elke

Monday, September 1, 2008

Turtle Monitoring with MCSS

Since 2003, the Marine Conservation Society of Seychelles has been implementing four complementary and mutually supportive turtle projects that address the strategic, tactical and local scenarios in an attempt to address turtle conservation in an integrated manner. These projects include:

- “Strategic Management of Turtle Populations” launched in June 2003 and funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through the British High Commission in Victoria.

- “Integrated Turtle Beach Management Project on Intendance beach, South Mahé, launched in August 2003 and funded by Banyan Tree Resort, Seychelles.

- “Conservation of Priority Turtle Rookeries on the Developed Islands” launched in January 2004 and funded by voluntary donations from the general public and business community.

- “Movement patterns of nesting and inter-nesting hawksbill turtles on the developed islands of Seychelles” launched in December 2007 and funded by Barclays Bank Seychelles.

A nesting hawksbill turtle on a beach on South Mahe, photo Jochen Gronau.

Through this blog we hope to keep you up to date with our activities with marine turtles and will introduce some of the MCSS staff and volunteers working on the various projects. You might also get to learn some interesting facts about the marine turtles found around Seychelles.