Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why should we protect turtles?

As with any animal, turtles play an important ecological role in their preferred habitat … the sea. Removal of turtles, through over-exploitation or mismanagement of their environment (including nesting beaches), can have devastating consequences on both the marine ecosystem and all those who rely on it.

Take for example the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas). Green Turtles are herbivorous and feed on seagrass beds throughout the tropics. This species of turtle is often targeted for its meat, but also caught accidentally in commercial fisheries. Its nesting sites are often destroyed through coastal developments. The species, as with other turtle species, is listed as Endangered on the IUCN’s red list and if we do not take care soon there will be no wild turtles left for our grand children to enjoy.

So why are turtles important?

A young Green turtle in its foraging grounds, photo MCS-UK

Green Turtles are one of the few animals that eat sea grass and in are in fact considered keystone species in many areas, as they play a major role in determining the community structure essential in maintaining healthy seagrass beds. Like a normal grass lawn on land, seas grass beds need to be constantly cut short to keep healthy. Cropping by hungry Green turtles, allows the sea grass to spread across the sea floor rather than just getting longer and older grass blades. The fresh young leaves from cropped plants, have a high nutritional value and support a wide range of other smaller herbivorous animals, which are eaten by bigger carnivorous fish, which are in turn eaten by humans.

A healthy seagrass bed supporting many species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans, photo J.H Harmelin

As seagrass beds are vital breeding and nursery grounds for many species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans (many of which are commercially exploited), if these animals cannot breed successfully, and their young are unable to develop an mature, their populations will eventually decline.

Fresh fish from local markets, photo John Nevill

As the populations of commercial species decline, fishermen are unable to meet demand for fish, shellfish and crustaceans. People who rely on these as their staple diet either starve or may take to crime to make ends meet.

Tourism, is often a major source of income for many coastal communities, photo Elise Bromley

As many coastal areas also rely on tourism, when the crime rates go up, the tourist stay away leading to loss of jobs and even more hardship for coastal communities which eventually impact people living further inland.

Indeed the question really is, why shouldn’t we protect turtles?

Turtles have existed for over 100 million years, travelling unhindered throughout the world's oceans. Today, they are struggling to survive, mainly because of things people are doing to the oceans and beaches. It is possible that a world in which turtles continue to die in large numbers, may soon become a world in which humans struggle to survive.

If, however, we learn from our mistakes and begin changing our behavior, there is still time to save turtles from extinction. In the process, we will not only be saving one of the world’s most mysterious creatures, a survivor from the age of the dinosaurs, we might just be saving ourselves too!

A survivor from the age of the dinosaurs and the age of modern man? photo Donn du Preez

Friday, December 19, 2008

Happy Anniversary Carol!!

December 20th is the one year anniversary of Carol receiving her satellite-relayed GPS tag which may not sound like a lot but in terms of satellite tracking this is a pretty impressive achievement!
Carol leaves the nesting beach on December 20th 2007. Photo MCSS

Carol was tagged on one of the prime nesting beaches on the South of Mahe in a programme organised and implemented by MCSS in association with the Ministry of Environment and the Wildlife Clubs of Seychelles and funded by Barclays Bank Seychelles (See Post 2). This innovative programme was aimed at increasing public awareness of Seychelles turtles through a programme that integrated hi-tec turtle research into the activities of the schools and Wildlife Clubs as well as through several competitions including an art contest and a science-project contest. It was through one of these awareness competitions that Carol named by Jessica Marengo, the winner of the ‘name-the-turtle competition.

The Fast-Loc GPS tag fitted to Carol has now lasted for 12 months. Photo Elke Talma

Since being tagged Carol has been tracked on-line through the facilities of and the track information was shared with teachers at local schools via the Wildlife Clubs who developed a number of science projects based on her track (See Post 13). The pupils and research staff watched in surprise as Carol moved away from Seychelles at the end of her nesting season and migrated away towards North West Madagascar arriving at her apparent chosen feeding ground on April 27th where she has remained, apparently quite contentedly, to this day (see the side bar for the latest tracking maps).

Carol's migration track to her foraging grounds off Mitsio Island; map courtesy

During her migration Carol has continued to surprise the research team with her impressive diving abilities with numerous dives made to depths of over 100 metres, not bad for an air-breathing turtle!

Today on her Anniversary Carol is still foraging off the Mitsio islands with her satellite tag sending us daily messages of where she is and what activities she has been up to. How long her tag’s batteries will last is now a sensitive question; originally the calculations indicated about three months as the fast-loc GPS is fairly power hungry, but having now achieved 12 months we can only keep our fingers crossed!

So a big thank you to all those involved in this tagging programme and our Best Wishes to Carol for the coming year!!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Meet the Turtle Officers from Banyan Tree Resort

In 2003, MCSS launched its Nesting Turtle Monitoring Programme in the South of Mahé with funding from the Banyan Tree Resort’s Green Imperative Fund. In November 2004, a training session which included a practical session on how to tag a nesting turtle was organised for Banyan Tree staff in collaboration with Dr Jeanne Mortimer, Turtle Consultant. After which, annual refresher courses where carried out by MCSS Research Officer, Elke Talma, at the beginning of the turtle nesting season in 2005, 2006, 2007 and more recently, on the 25th of September 2008.With the recent launch of the MCSS turtle blog, we have asked the 2008 Turtle Officers from Banyan Tree Resort to introduce themselves:

Adam Abdulla assisting with beach rehabilitation at Intendance beach, photo Elke Talma

Hi, my name is Adam Abdulla from Maldives, and I have worked at Banyan Tree Resort, Seychelles at Intendance beach on Mah̩ island as a coconut tree climber for almost five years. In 2003, I began assisting with the MCSS РBanyan Tree Turtle Monitoring Programme and in 2004 was taught how to tag nesting turtles by Dr Jeanne Mortimer. I have also attended the annual refresher training sessions organised by Elke.

During the nesting season, I come to work early and walk the beach in search for nesting turtles. If I am lucky enough to see one, I sit with her until she finishes laying – usually surrounded by a group of exited tourists from the Resort. As she makes her way back down the beach, I will measure and tag her and pass all the information I have gathered on to Elke. Over the years, Elke and I have become good friends and I enjoy working with her – even when she gets a bit bossy!

While I enjoy seeing nesting turtles, I prefer releasing hatchlings because seeing them heading out into the wide open sea, makes me realise that I have done my bit to accomplished my personal mission towards environmental protection.

Danny Bibi assisting with beach rehabilitation at Intendance beach, photo Elke Talma

Hi, my name is Danny Bibi and I have been working at Banyan Tree Resort, Seychelles since 2001 as a gardener. In 2004, I began assisting with the MCSS – Banyan Tree Turtle Monitoring Programme. In 2005, I formally joined the Turtle Monitoring Team after attending training with Elke.

Over the years, I have seen turtles tagged by Adam and Elke return to Intendance beach to nest again. I am hoping that eventually, one of “my” turtles will return! I find this extremely satisfying, as its shows there is hope for the future. With any luck (… and a lot of dedication), my grandchildren can appreciate what many take for granted today.

Growing up in Seychelles, I use to eat turtle meat but since working with the Turtle programme I have stopped this bad habit. I like working with Elke as she is someone you can trust and always has a smile on her face.

Paul Isaac from Banyan Tree Resort, photo Elke Talma

Hi, my name is Paul Isaac and I am a Garden Supervisor at Banyan Tree Resort, Seychelles. I have worked at Banyan Tree for seven years now and in 2006 began assisting with the Turtle programme. I formally joined the Turtle Monitoring Team in 2008, after attending training with Elke.

I like being part of the Turtle Team as I want to protect turtles so that my kids will be able to see a nesting turtle someday. The information I collect, is important because it allows us to track turtle movements both during and between nesting seasons. So far, we know that most turtle come back to Banyan Tree to nest but every now and again one of our turtles is spotted by Elke, nesting on a neighbouring beach.

I am always thinking about the future, which is why I enjoy releasing turtle hatchlings. It is gratifying to see then crawling down the beach, determined to make their mark on the world.

Christophe Belle with his first turtle, photo Elke Talma

Hi, my name is Christophe Belle. I am a Seychellois and began working at Banyan Tree Resort, Seychelles in June 2007 as a gardener. In September 2007, I joined the Turtle Team after attending training with Elke. In December, I also volunteered to manage the Wetlands at Banyan Tree and share my time between turtles and terrapins.

Whenever is see a nesting turtle, I make sure I report the sighting. While I am not authorised to tag turtles (Elke is very strict with her training and thinks I should spend more time on the beach and less time in the wetlands!), I know that the information I collect will help us better understand and therefore, protect our turtles.

Although it is important to protect turtles, it is just as important to protect their nesting sites because without the nesting beaches, turtles will eventually go extinct.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Legal harvest of turtles...

In times past, when Seychelles was a young nation and there was no fillet steak from Brazil, turkey from South Africa or leg of lamb from New Zealand, you ate fish which was in abundance. Most families kept some chickens, not so much to eat but for the eggs which were sold to supplement the family income. Life was hard then and to come across a turtle whilst fishing or on the beach was cause for celebration for it was red meat with a capitol M, a welcome addition to the diet.

The turtle season was anticipated, as we now anticipate Christmas, since there was money to be had. Green turtles were killed for eating and Hawksbill turtles for their shell, which was sold and made into trinkets like spectacle frames combs, guitar picks and cuff links.

On the outer islands fishermen were employed to catch fish for the workers and fish for salting. Occasionally a turtle would be killed and the meat divided, a portion going to each worker as part of his food ration. Sometimes they would upturn the carapace on the barbecue or fire, seasoning the meat inside with spices. Then when cooked, all would sit around the carapace with their bread and eating irons helping themselves to the feast.

Turtle were also harpooned, to be shipped to Mahe. Their wound would be plugged and they would be sent to the Old Pier where there was a turtle park….a pond where they were kept. On a Saturday a couple would be slaughtered and their meat sold in the market.

This happened not centuries ago, but in living memory.

Most of our older generation will have eaten and enjoyed turtle meat but that was in another time. It was a time when tigers were hunted for trophies and to go on a safari shoot meant you go with guns and not cameras, a time when fur coats were made of real fur and not fun fur. That time is gone. Now we are reaping the bitter harvest of our past excesses.Turtles are now so few in numbers that all of the turtle species are endangered or critically endangered.

…. News from Patricia

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Christmas wish list

As Christmas approaches a spot of on-line browsing can reveal a wealth of turtle oriented gifts for that special lady, such as turtle rings:Turtle boxes:
Turtle pendants:
Turtle earrings and pins:
Turtle bracelets and figurines:

For turtle fanatics around the world who are looking for something special this Christmas, please visit John Didier in America for some cool custom turtle furniture:

If you prefer sculptures, then contact Tom Bowers from Seychelles:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What turtles really think!

Ever wondered what goes through a turtle's mind?

All photos Elke Talma

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

2008 Turtle Awareness Training for Banyan Tree Resort’s staff.

MCSS would like to thank all Banyan Tree staff who attended the 2008 Turtle Awareness Training. Weekly presentations by Elke Talma, MCSS Research Officer, were organised over the course of 3 months with the aim of attaining 100% staff awareness. Unfortunately due to high guest occupancy over the course of this period, the proposed target could not be met …but that just means there is room for improvement in 2009.

Each participant in the 2008 Turtle Awareness Training received a certificate designed by Elke.

2008 Turtle Awareness Training certificate, photo Elke Talma

In addition to turtle awareness, 4 staff members were given refresher training in Turtle Monitoring Techniques. They were Adam Abdulla, Danny Bibi, Christopher Belle. Paul Isaac was also asked to join the Banyan Tree Turtle Team, as he had been providing valuable information about turtle encounters during the 2007-08 Nesting Season.

2007-08 Turtle Officer from Banyan Tree: Adam Abdulla (right), Christopher Belle (centre) and Danny Bibi (left), photo Elke Talma

While not employed with Banyan Tree Resort, Marcel Mathiot was also able to join in the refresher training.

Turtle training with staff from Constance Lemuria Resort.

MCSS would like to thank all Constance Lemuria Resort staff who attended the 2008 Turtle Awareness Training organised by MCSS in September 2008. While the power-point presentation generally lasts only an hour, MCSS Research Officer, Elke Talma, spent 3 hours talking about turtles as staff were very keen to learn more and even had some turtle stories of their own to share.

The Turtle Awareness Training was followed by another 3 hour session in Turtle Monitoring Techniques in preparation for the 2008-09 Hawksbill Nesting Season. This session was attended by Robert Matombe, Adrian Allison and Marvin Jolicoeur who introduced themselves in a blog posted in September.

Robert is the Turtle Manager at Constance Lemuria Resort and has been monitoring since 2007. With one year of turtle experience he is now authorised to tag turtles. While he was given theory training with Elke in September 2008, Robert had actually tagged a turtle early in 2008 following an impromptu turtle encounter while Dr Jeanne Mortimer, turtle consultant, was on site.

2008 Turtle Monitoring Techniques Training certificate, photo Elke Talma.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A happy distraction on a dark night

Our hawksbill turtle nesting season is just getting underway and it is most unusual to have Green turtles nest on the beach that we patrol, so it was with great excitement we received the news that a large turtle had come up on the beach during the midnight hours of 28th August. She had dug several body pits but there was no conclusive evidence that she had laid. We were pleased to note that she had returned to the sea without hindrance.

Green turtle tracks, photo Elke Talma

Although no one had seen her, and her tracks had been washed clean by the high tide, we were all convinced that it had to have been a Green turtle.

Some 58 days later we received a phone call from friends who were working under bright lights late that evening on their boat. They had lots of baby green turtles crawling everywhere and very few were going towards the sea!

Marcel hurried down to the beach and soon all the confused little hatchlings had been gathered up and the lights doused. Marcel walked into the sea, shining his torch upon the water ahead of him. As the little hatchlings were released, they crawled down the beach, following Marcel and his torch into the sea. Swimming strongly after the torches gentle light, they soon disappeared off in the horizon.

Held back for their fifteen minutes of fame, photo Patricia Mathiot

As we could not use flash photography for fear of damaging the hatchlings eyes, three were retained overnight to be photographed in the good morning light before being released. To help them further on their journey, Marcel took them on a boat ride and release them several kilometres offshore, to give them a better chance of catching up to their siblings.

… News from Patricia.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

“Lucky Lady” - the turtle that got away

My recent post told of a turtle swallowed by a tiger shark. These photos are of our first nesting Hawksbill turtle of the season, the one that got away!

She is a full grown 91 cm long lady with a beautiful coloured carapace and she must have fought hard to survive the shark attack that gave her these horrendous scars.

Lucky lady - the turtle that got away, photo Marcel Mathiot

She must be fairly stubborn too, as she has chosen to nest in the most difficult place - full of roots and debris. Never the less, she persevered and successfully laid a clutch of eggs.

Not the best spot to dig, but she made it, photo Marcel Mathiot

She bore evidence of old tag scars and before she returned to the sea she was newly tagged on both front flippers by Gilberte Gendron from Ministry of Environment (see blog on poaching at grand police) who happened to be driving past at the time.

14 days later to the hour, this same turtle returned to nest on the very same beach just about a 100 meters north of her previous nest. This was confirmed by tag numbers and photographic evidence.

…. News from Patricia

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Turtles behaving naturally!

Nesting Hawksbill turtle, photo Elke Talma

People always get excited when you tell them you have seen a nesting turtle, but few seem to realise what a long and laborious process the poor turtle has to endure to make sure her eggs are safely buried on the beach. A successful nesting emergence can last anything from 1 hour to 3 hours, and in some cases for as long as 5 hours if a tenacious turtle is having trouble finding the perfect spot for her eggs.

Below is a brief description of what a turtle goes through to ensure the next generation of turtles.

Hawksbill turtle emerging from the sea, photo Elke Talma

Emergence: a female turtle will check the beach from the water before slowly emerging from the sea. She crawls slowly up the beach towards the vegetation, stopping repeatedly and looking for signs of danger.

IMPORTANT: If disturbed by movement or noise, she will return to the water, so FREEZE! Do not move until you are out of her line of sight.

Hawksbill turtle digging a body pit, photo Elke Talma

Digging the body pit: once she is within or near the vegetation line, and well above the high tide mark, the turtle will use her front flippers simultaneously to clear away any debris and loose sand. She may also use her hind flippers in sideways movements for clearing.

IMPORTANT: If disturbed by movement or noise, she will return to the water, so do NOT approach.

Hawksbill turtle digging an egg chamber, photo Elke Talma

Digging the egg chamber: using her rear flippers only, she will dig a hole approximately 30 to 50cm deep. She does this by alternately scooping sand out of the hole and throwing it aside. If she encounters roots, rocks or hard ground she may move to another site to dig again.

Once she can no longer reach loose sand in the hole, she will place both flippers on either side of the hole and take a short rest.

IMPORTANT: If disturbed by movement or noise, she will return to the water, so do NOT approach.

Hawksbill turtle laying a clutch of eggs, photo Ellen Waldrop

Laying: she positions her tail over the hole and starts depositing eggs in the egg chamber. She will lay 100 to 200 eggs in total in batches of 1 to 5 eggs at a time, tensing her body each time she drops her eggs.

During laying, she appears to go in a trance.

IMPORTANT: Wait a few minutes for her to settle in a rhythm. The turtle can be approached with caution, but approach from behind if possible, do NOT make noise and move slowly.

Hawksbill turtle covering the egg chamber, photo Elke Talma

Covering the egg chamber: after laying, the turtle uses her hind flippers to cover her eggs with sand. She will use her tail to gauge her progress. Once she touches sand, still using her rear flippers, she will then press down on top of the filled egg chamber, compacting the sand. This ensures that the egg chamber does not collapse when the hatchlings emerge in 2 months time , thus leaving an air space for them as they crawl through the sand to reach the surface.

IMPORTANT: The turtle can be approached with caution, but approach from behind if possible, do NOT make noise and move slowly.

Hawksbill turtle camouflaging her nest, photo Elke Talma

Camouflaging: once she has covered the egg chamber, the turtle starts to camouflage the nest area. She will throw loose sand over the nest site with her front flippers and may use her rear flippers to push sand over the nest area and move forward or backward to hide the location of the egg chamber.

IMPORTANT: While the turtle can be approached with caution, its recommend that you keep your distance… unless you want a face full of sand!

Hawksbill exiting the nesting beach, photo Elke Talma

Exit beach: once camouflaging is complete, the turtle will turn around to face the sea. She will rapidly crawl, down the beach, usually in a straight line, until she reaches the water.

If she is tired or unstressed by the nesting process, she may stop every now and again to rest, giving you the perfect opportunity for a photo.

If she is stressed and feels threatened, she is not stopping for hell or high water!

IMPORTANT: do not block her passage back to the sea, or she may not come back this beach to nest again!

In about 2 weeks time she should come back to the same beach to repeat the whole process again. In a season, a Hawksbill turtle will lay 4 to 5 clutches of eggs before returning to her feeding grounds.