Thursday, June 18, 2009

We need your turtle pictures!

MCSS has recently produced a poster to encourage public participation in the Turtle photo-ID programme which is being managed by the Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory.

The MCSS poster will be distributed to Dive Centres and Tour Operators, as well as Hotels and Resorts in the Seychelles which host nesting turtle populations.

This will go a long way to help expand the Indian Ocean database which currently has turtle images from the following islands: Reunion, Mayotte, Comoros, Madagascar, Europa, Tromelin, Glorieuse Juan da Nova and some islands in Seychelles.

If you have photos you would like to contribute please contact us.

Monday, June 8, 2009

540+ days and still transmitting!

It been more than 18 months since she was released, and Carol is still transmitting data to MCSS via the Argos Satellite system.

Carol’s journey from Seychelles to Madagascar, vie Coetivy island, courtesy

This is definitely the longest recorded satellite track, in terms of duration, for an animal tagged in Seychelles (the longest whale shark attachment so far has been 123 days for a PAT tagged shark) and is possibly a world record for a GPS-satellite tagged turtle.

Longest distance a whale shark has been tracked from Seychelles (3383 km); orange track is after the tag detached and was drifting free. From the MCSS Whale Shark Monitoring Programme, courtesy of David Rowat

Carol arrived in Madagascar in April 2008 after a journey of some 2644 kms and has been very active. Since her arrival North West of the Mitsio islands she has generally stayed within a fairly restricted area around one of the offshore reef systems making over numerous dives each day to depths of around 50 to 60 metres but occasionally making deeper dives to depths of around 100 metres.

By comparison her movement away from the reef system or around the islands has been very limited with only one excursion towards mainland Madagascar in late January, early February of this year.

Carols movements have been limited apart from one excursion in January 2009, courtesy

So carol and her tag seem to be quite happy off Mitsio, we wonder if she will return to Seychelles to nest this season?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Thanks for making us welcome!

MCSS would like to thank the French Embassy in Seychelles and Region Reunion for funding the recent scoping mission to Reunion Island and the Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory under the regional cooperation agreement for marine turtle conservation. Special thanks to Michel Vely, the Technical advisor in the Nature & Conservation Division of the Ministry of Environment in Seychelles, who co-ordinated the process.

MCSS would especially like to thank all staff at Kelonia for making David and Elke feel welcome in Reunion and putting up with their appalling French! Special thanks to:
  • Stephane Ciccione, Director of Kelonia, for organising our stay in Reunion, welcoming David and Elke at Kelonia and for taking Elke to a black sand beach for a photo op!
  • Claire Jean, Project Officer at Kelonia, for translating David’s PowerPoint presentation (twice!), going through the various Kelonia projects with Elke, sharing her office and putting up with David and Elke for a week,
  • Cyrille Lebon, an MSc Student from France, for giving Elke 2 tests on turtle photo-ID!
  • Emily Richard, the assistant Public Relations Officer, for sharing information about the Public Awareness Programme at Kelonia and allowing Elke to join her with a group of school children who were visiting the facility.
  • Thierry Lauret, a Guide at Kelonia, for taking David and Elke on a tour of Kelonia on their first day.
  • Bernadin Ouaratta, Kevin Certat, David Artrigo and Alain Castle from the Turtle Care Centre for allowing Elke to play with their turtles and clean their tanks.
  • Dr Manfred Enstipp, for talking about his project on turtle respiration, sharing his experience on satellite tagging with David and letting Elke play with Elizabeth, his main test animal.

Thanks also to Claudette Donz, the Marketing Manager and Gérard Trules from the IT Department at Kelonia.

Thanks also to Dr Delphine Mutz from IRD and Ifremer for explaining the techniques used in Genetics; Dr. Matthieu Lecorre for organising the symposium at the University of Reunion; Dr. Violaine Dulau from Globice, for a delicious lunch and her interesting presentation on photo ID of Cetaceans; Jean-Yves from Dodo Spot for providing accommodation and waking up early to make us breakfast; and the staff at O’Jacare in St Leu for feeding David and Elke for 5 nights out of 7 - the best scallops, raw fish, calamari and duck this side of the equator!

We look forward to a long and productive relationship helping to conserve turtles and all marine life in the Western Indian Ocean.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Raising awareness on Photo-ID methods used in marine animals

Photo identification is a non-invasive method for identifying individual animals of a species in the wild. It is based on distinct marking or patterns visible on each animal that are stable over time and has been shown to work well on a number of animal species. In the marine field its use with Cetaceans and Whale Sharks, allows researchers to stay at a distance, thus ensuring that they have minimal impact on the animal’s behaviour.

Photo-ID is slowly replacing standard marking techniques, such as using marker tags, which are intrusive and can be stressful to the animal during the application and re-capture process.

Within the Indian Ocean, several organisations have been using Photo-ID on their study animals and three recently came together to give presentations of their work:

MCSS uses the spot patterns on whale sharks to identify individual animals that visit Seychelles every year. These are then compared to sightings from around the region and also submitted to the ECOCEAN database.

Globice identifies individual Humpback Whales and the larger species of Dolphins using the shape of the dorsal fin and the colour pattern of the tail fluke; and

Kelonia has developed a photo-ID method that relies on the number, position and shapes of scales in profile shots of marine turtles.

During the recent MCSS visit to Reunion the opportunity was taken to organise two mini-symposiums with these three organisations presenting their photo-ID methods. One presentation at the Kelonia facility was aimed at the general public while a second, slightly more technical presentation was targeted at students and researchers from the University of Reunion.

Photo Identification of marine mega-fauna, poster by Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory.

The use of these non-invasive techniques has great application for the regional sharing of data on these species and we look forward to greater regional cooperation in these efforts.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Smile for the camera!

Identifying individual animals over a period of time can provide information on population size, and individual survival amongst other things and as such is a key tool for conservation. But how do you identify animals that basically look alike? In turtle conservation throughout the world, much effort is focused on the use of marker tags and in these species the easily accessible part of the population is nesting females.

In some places, such as the Aldabra Atoll World Heritage site in Seychelles, juveniles are caught in the reef flats for tagging and weighing. Mature adult males, however, are pretty much inaccessible not only because they occur in deeper waters, but also swim much faster and weigh significantly more, making it hard to “throw” them into a boat for weighing, measuring and tagging.

Juvenile turtles are easy to catch in shallow lagoons for mark and recapture studies, photo Pierre André Adam.

Given these limitations, a number of organisations around the world have looked at ways of using photographs to identify individuals and this has now been tried with turtles. In Hawaii, for example, researchers looked for patterns in the scales and have been able to track turtles for over 15 years.

Clothahump, was first identified in 1988 (left) off Honokowai, West Maui in Hawaii and re-sighted in 1993 (right), photo Turtle Trax.

This method of photo identification, however, is subjective. Claire Jean, Project Officer at Kelonia, in association with the Information Technologies department at the University of Reunion have devised a new method which uses the number, location and shape of scales from the left and right side of the turtle's head to identify individuals in a population. So far, this method has been tested and validated on Green turtles and Claire is being assisted by Cyrille Lebon, an MSc student from the University of St Etiennes in France, in this task .

Kelonia-coded Green turtle, photo Cyrille Lebon

With the recent submission of over 70 images by MCSS , Cyrille is doing further testing to see if the same method can be applied to Hawksbill turtles. Despite having fewer scales to code, preliminary results show that the method should work on this smaller species, provided that the image is complete i.e. nesting turtles are usually covered in sand and often, their neck is slightly retracted during laying thus obscuring outlying scales.

Images of nesting turtles are not always usable because they are partly obscured by sand, photo Uli Enfont.

In addition to testing the coding method on turtles, Claire and Cyrille are also testing humans to see how easy or hard it is to teach others to use this method. Using a standard protocol (written in French unfortunately!), volunteers were asked to code 16 photographs of turtles after reading the protocol. Despite her limited French, Elke also volunteered for this test.

Elke taking her turtle photo-ID test very seriously, photo Claire Jean.

Early results show that while the protocol is well annotated and generally well understood, a few exceptions stipulated in the photo-ID programme require additional clarification, meaning proper training is indispensable. However, as Cyrille is doing his thesis on validating the Kelonia photo-ID protocol, he needs figures to back up this claim, so at the recent photo ID mini-symposium held at the University of Reunion (see coming blog), he had a captive audience on which to re-test the protocol, this time with training.

Cyrille presenting the turtle photo-ID protocol for re-testing (with training) on University students, photo Claire Jean.

Once again, Elke was roped into the test. Her results for test 1 (without training) were; 71 errors; 17 missing scales and 11 added scales, while for test 2 (with training); 64 errors, 10 missing scales and 9 added scales … and according to Cyrille, these were the best results from all participants for the two tests!!


If you would like to assist with this programme, please feel free to send us your photographs of turtles. Simply include: your name, the date and location of the photograph and the turtle’s behaviour at the time (i.e. feeding, resting, swimming etc.) and we will include it in the rapidly growing database.

More cleaning for Elke to do!

Instead of taking Saturday off for sightseeing around Reunion, Elke insisted on assisting Bernadin Ouaratta and Alain Castel with cleaning the turtle tanks – any excuse to get back into the main viewing tank!

While Bernadin scrubbed Blanche’s tank, Elke scrubbed Blanche!

Blanche getting her weekly scrub by Elke, photo David Rowat.

Blanche was completely unbothered by all the attention and seemed happy to be held by Elke, once again armed with a scrubbing brush.

Next on the cleaning schedule was the main viewing tank!

While Bernadin went to get the stuff for cleaning the main viewing window, Elke was allowed into the water to attempt to clean the turtles – 3 of which happened to be “wild” animals!

Having been warned by Bernadin that the Hawksbills have a tendency to bite, Elke was weary of getting up close and personal with them and headed straight for Archelon – who swam away!

Archelon diving deep to avoid another scrubbing, photo David Rowat.

Carotte, the loggerhead, and Olive, the Olive Ridley, where hiding at the deep end so Elke did not even attempt to clean them – not a problem as they had already been scrubbed on Thursday.

Carrotte staying as far away from Elke as possible, photo David Rowat.

As Bernadin had not yet returned, Elke was checking out the resident fish in the tank when all of a sudden she had a curious Hawsbill on her hands – Croupette wanted to say hi!

Cautiously Elke tried to touch her with the scrubbing brush – which she tried to nip! So, armed with a bright yellow crock (Elke’s shoe) in one hand, acting as “bait” and the brush in the other, Elke was able to give Croupette a half scrub. The turtle eventually agreed to have her head scrubbed but would shy away every time Elke tired to clean her shell.

Croupette having her head scrubbed, photo David Rowat.

Myriam was not at all impressed with all the attention that Croupette was getting and chased the smaller Hawksbill away. She then eyeballed Elke, who with some persuasion (using the crock to keep her beak at arm length) managed to get her shell cleaned.

Myriam at arms length, photo David Rowat.

Once the viewing window was cleaned, Elke then assisted with the morning feed in the Care Centre. Having fallen in love with one particular turtle, Elke then spent the rest of the morning saying bye-bye to Virginie, who had no issues being scrubbed by Elke. Indeed she would follow Elke around her tank, demanding more attention.

Virginie, an injured captive Green turtle who bonded with Elke, photo David Rowat.


While swimming with “tame” turtles was great fun, it is important to stress that most of these turtles have been living in captivity for over 20 years and, as such, have come to rely on humans for their survival. In no way, shape or form, do we at MCSS recommend that anyone try this in the wild!