Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wilna and Betty join Carol in making turtle history

In December 2007, MCSS deployed two fast-loc satellite relayed tags with funding from Barclays Banks, Seychelles. Two years later, David dropped off another two tags for Elke to play with! ...these were funded by the 2009 whale shark encounter trips.

Elke organised a 'camping trip' last week to the South of Mahé to find some turtles to put the tags on. The Banyan Tree Resort generously agreed to provide food and accommodation as Xanadu Private Resort, our previous accommodation on the beach, was having water issues.

MCSS sought assistance from previous partne
rs, namely the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MENR) and the Wildlife Clubs of Seychelles (WCS), for additional man-power …or rather woman-power as it turned out to be!

Luxury Banyan Tree Resort accommodation…unfortunately not quite what we got!

MENR unfortunately did not have any staff available for the
planned period but the WCS came to the rescue with group leaders, Wilna Figaro and Betty Cecile, volunteering to leave their families for a week to join Elke on the beach…they had no idea what they were in for!

From left to right: Wilna, Elke and Betty, photo David Rowat

The first day was a logistical nightmare! David, having just returned from the UAE had forgotten to defrost the tags and was still rubbing sleep out of his eyes when Elke, Wilna and Betty rocked up at his house at 7am while at Banyan Tree Resort, no one had left instructions with Security about our arrival.
By mid-day, all was on track again with Elke’s stress levels had reduced significantly!

Assuming her position from 2 years ago, on a large rock under a small coconut tree, Elke had a panoramic view of the beach to begin the long wait. Three turtles were spotted that day, a very good sign!
Panoramic view of the MCSS satellite tagging beach, photo Elke Talma

The first two turtles returned to sea without nesting after struggling on the rocks which form a barrier at low tide; the third made it to the nesting platform and began to lay shortly after 17:30pm. With sunset at 18:30, it was decided to let her be, as we did not want to be fooling around with epoxy glue and an unhappy turtle in the dark. DeeDee (SCA0860) finally made it to the sea at 18:23 giving the team just enough time to make it to dinner in the staff canteen.

DeeDee the turtle, heading off into the Sunset, photo Elke Talma.

After 10 hours on the beach on Tuesday, there was nothing to report on the beach or from the surrounding waters. David Deny, our man-Friday from 2007 and caretaker at the Xanadu Private Resort, predicted that we would not see a turtle until Friday!
In desperation, Elke expanded the search area to a second beach and at 16:50 got a call from an exited Wilna, that a turtle was emerging at Xanadu.

Dr. David Rowat was called from a cocktail with the British High Commission and despite the lateness, it was decided that we would tag her anyway under the glow of a battery powered tube light - an experience never to be repeated!!!!

Just enough light to get by, but never to be repeated, photo Betty Cecile

At 20:10 the 90.5cm hawksbill turtle
(SCA0862), now named Wilna after her finder, was released complete with her satellite tag firmly fixed after just 1hr and 30 minutes of being restrained by Elke and all. It was low tide by then, and the tired, scared and confused turtle wedged herself under a rock in a shallow rock-pool on the exposed reef some 10 metres from the sea.

Elke and David, rushed to her rescue, concerned for the turtle's safety but also for the Euro 5,000 tag! Finally, Wilna the turtle and her new accessory made it out to sea and an exhausted turtle tagging team realised that they had missed dinner in the Banyan Tree canteen!

Getting to bed at nearly midnight, Elke took an executive decision to sleep in the following day. After a leisurely breakfast, the team of ladies arrived on the beach at 07:45 only to find a turtle entering the nesting platform. Oh joy!! Elke was still recovering from her injuries after trying to restrain Wilna the turtle the previous night!

However, in daylight things were a lot less stressful making it easier to deal with this turtle (SCA0864),
now known as Betty ... it also helped that she was significantly smaller!

By the time Dr. David arrived on site, Betty the turtle had just started laying and David Deny was on hand to assist with logistics. Michelle Martin, also from the WCS, and her kids had been invited and were there to provide moral support for what was an anticipated long wait that day.

The two David's capturing Betty the turtle in the 'box' as she emerged from the nesting platform, photo Elke Talma.

Betty the turtle was also restrained for 1hr and 30 minutes while the tag was attached and with lots of additional hands, Elke could take a breather - funny how it took 6 people to hold the smaller turtle though!
The WCS ladies (from left to right Michelle, Wilna and Betty) and Betty the turtle, photo Elke Talma

After being released, Betty the turtle safely made it out to open water with a bit of guidance and maneuvering to get around the raised reef by Dr. David assisted by Noah, Michelle's son.

Dr. David pointing the way around the reef while Noah Jean-Louis assists in getting Betty the turtle back to sea, photo Betty Cecile

The new satellite tags are already transmitting and both turtles are alive and well; we will keep you posted on the progress of Wilna and Betty, the hawksbill turtles from Seychelles.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Famous Five back in Seychelles

In March 2009, the German customs officers confiscated a number of turtle eggs from a woman who had returned to Germany after a holiday in Seychelles. The eggs were sent to Frankfurt Zoo and placed in an incubator where five of them hatched shortly after and the hatchlings were then carefully reared by the staff. The smuggler was fined Euro 5000 ($7300) by German officials it was reported, and we have to applaud the actions of the German customs authorities in helping stamp out this illegal activity.

Today, nine months later, sponsored by airline Condor, the young turtles arrived in Seychelles accompanied by Mr Dirk Hausen of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and Mr Michael Schüler of Hessicher Rundfunk TV. They were greeted by Ronley Fanchette of the Ministry of Environment, Dr. David Rowat and Elke Talma of MCSS, Alain St. Ange of the Seychelles Tourism Board, Dr Jimmy Melanie from the Seychelles Veterinary Clinic and a film crew from the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation.

The turtles in their transit box, photo Elke Talma

After an 8 hour flight, with no food nor drink since 5pm Seychelles time the day before, the turtles passed their veterinary inspection. While the original plan was to released them immediately, Elke and David managed to convince the authorities that it would probably be best to allow the turtles to acclimatise to our warmer climate…also at an average length of 20cm it seemed murderous to drop them onto a reef to be fed on by large fish and any resident sharks! Usually turtles of this size would be safely hiding in seaweed mats floating in mid-ocean, far away from toothy predators...

Unfortunately, Seychelles is not equipped to deal with rescued marine animals but luckily there is a Black Pearl Farm on Praslin Island with salt water ponds large enough that would be a suitable temporary home for the repatriated turtles. A few quick phone calls and the owners of the farm confirmed they were happy to accept these new residents on a temporary basis.

But how to get them there, especially with such a large welcoming committee!
 However, a private flight was soon arranged to get them to Praslin. After being measured and photo-ID’ed by Elke, the Famous Five were released into their temporary home. It was heart warming to see them swim off to the other end, and shortly after begin feeding on the algae and invertebrates growing in the pond.

Dirk saying his last goodbye to one of the young turtles, photo Elke Talma

The turtle’s will be under the care of Victorin Laboudallon of the Ministry of Environment on Praslin for the next two weeks before being released into their natural habitat. During his interview with Michael, Victorin thanked the German people for returning our natural heritage and offered to name them after five German cities.

Young turtles inspecting their new home, photo Elke Talma

After a quick Google search, Elke has already picked out some names:
1. Berlin (a.k.a Bernie)

2. Munich (a.k.a Moo)

3. Hamburg (a.k.a Hammie)

4. Cologne (a.k.a Col)

5. Frankfurt (a.k.a Frankie)

Using images to help conserve endangered marine animals

Newspaper article from Seychelles Nation (30.11.2009)

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?

The Marine Conservation Society, Seychelles (MCSS) in collaboration with Ministry of Environment and the Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory in Reunion, recently held two workshops funded by Mangroves for the Future for scientists and the public, explaining how photo-identification can be used on turtles and whale sharks.

Whale sharks are regularly visitors to Seychelles waters and in 1997 MCSS set up a long term monitoring programme to help learn more about these elusive creatures. Initially, sharks were identified with marker tags giving each tagged animal a unique and easily recognisable number. Later, however, a photo-identification technique developed for ragged-tooth sharks in South Africa that used the pattern of spots on the sides of the sharks was shown to be effective in identifying individual whale sharks also.

The area found to be most suitable, is the area behind the last gill slit on each side (see photo).
Photographs of this area, which include the top and bottom of the last gill slit and the edge of the pectoral fin, provide ‘landmark’ points that allow the image to be digitally ‘fingerprinted’. These fingerprints can then be used to rapidly identify the individual sharks using a special computer program (I3S).

The MCSS has built up a database containing over 13,000 images of whale sharks taken around Seychelles and from these they have identified 447 individual sharks over the last 10 years. Of these, 99 sharks have been resighted in multiple years, the longest span being for 4 sharks identified in 2001 and resighted this year. These images and their fingerprints are shared freely with other researchers in the Indian Ocean and also on the global whale shark database and are helping to unravel the mysteries surrounding the lives of this the world’s largest living shark.

The spot patterns on whale shark can be used to identify individual animals in a population, the box shows the critical area needed to get a usable fingerprint. Photo Luke Riley.

In turtle conservation throughout the world, most individual identification is by the use of marker tags and in these species, the easily accessible part of the population is nesting females who come ashore to lay their eggs and can thus be tagged on the beach.

In some places, such as the Aldabra Atoll World Heritage site in Seychelles, juveniles can also be caught on 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 catch them for weighing, measuring and tagging.

Given these limitations, a number of organisations around the world have looked at ways of using photographs, rather than marker tags, to identify individual turtles. Claire Jean, Project Officer at the Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory, in association with the Information Technologies department at the University of Reunion, have recently devised a 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.

Results from Green turtles photographed by divers around Reunion, Mayotte and Glorieuse islands have shown that individual animals can be reliable identified in their foraging grounds using this method.
To date, 60 Green turtles have been identified by researchers at Kelonia, with at least 14 individuals being re-sighted a few months later. Photographs of turtles in Seychelles, submitted by MCSS, have added an additional 36 Hawksbill turtles to this Indian Ocean database.

One of the many Hawksbill turtles photographed in Seychelles waters, the box shows the critical area needed to get a usable fingerprint. Photo David Rowat.

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

PO Box 1299,



Monday, December 14, 2009

Breaking records with GVI

Since her turtle talk with volunteers of Global Vision Internal (GVI), Elke has been taking GVI volunteers on beach patrols as part of the awareness raising campaign under the MCSS project on “Conservation of turtle rookeries on the developed island of Mahé through increased public awareness and community involvement.” funded by Mangroves for the Future.

To date, 18 volunteers have joined in beach patrols with a number a turtle records being broken.

Brendan Galloway proved that he was NOT an American Superpower after all, when a Hawksbill turtle showed him just how strong Seychellois girls could be! His buddy Vincent Vandergheynst filmed the whole thing! It took over 3 minutes for Brendan to restrain the turtle and in the end Elke only deployed one tag and had to forgo measuring, as she was feeling sorry for the poor turtle.

Proof that turtles are stronger than Americans, photo Vincent Vandergheynst.

Edvan Loh and Yvonne Phillips met the stupidest turtle of the season, who nested on Anse Forbans. She laid her 158 eggs in the open, mid-beach and near a busy road. Being clearly visible from the road, she drew quite a crowd which Elke kept at bay, armed with her recently laminated Turtle Watchers Code of Conduct.

Turtle tortures conservationist by nesting mid beach on a hot, humid day, photo Elke Talma.

Kevin Jackson and Jill Howell had the highest number of turtle tracks recorded to date during the 2009-10 Season, with 20 tracks in total being recorded on a single day.

And last but not least, after 5 years of monitoring Elke finally managed to get a shot of two turtles emerging at the same time! Curtis and Richard Horne were there to enjoy the experience and while they watched one turtle, Elke dealt with the other before coming over to tag their turtle.

In five years of monitoring, this is the 3rd time that Elke has seen two turtles on the same beach at the same time, photo Elke Talma.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Maritime School joins in turtle conservation effort

Year 1 students from the Advanced Fisheries class at the Maritime Training Centre joined Elke on the beach for a half day Clean-up activity. The field trip was organised by their Marine Organism lecturer, Vanessa Zialor, who being a local plankton taxonomy expert, has been assisting MCSS for a number of years with their whale shark monitoring programme.

Shareefa Cadeau instructing her class mates about the Turtle Watchers Code of Conduct from the MCSS “mobile class room”, photo Elke Talma.

After a short briefing about turtles, the team of 13 students, 2 Environment officials, Vanessa and Elke began collecting rubbish while hoping desperately to see a nesting turtle - none showed up!
They were, however, unexpectedly rewarded with some Hawksbill hatchlings, found while collecting rubbish in the bushes. The nest had hatched a few days ago, with hatchlings emerging from the sand the night before.

For reasons yet to be determined, most of the hatchlings headed inland, despite no obvious signs of light pollution on the deserted beach, with many being killed by a picky predator with a taste for turtle brains!

Grey matter, a tasty snack for some! photo Elke Talma.

Fifty seven dead hatchlings were collected from the bush and of the 28 live hatchlings found, only 22 made it safely to the sea, with the other 6 dying from their head injuries.

Rubbish collecting abandoned while MTC students enjoyed their first hatchling encounter, photo Vanessa Zialor.

A total of 100kg of rubbish was collected from the beach, making the beach just that little bit safer for hatchlings and their nesting mothers.

From left to right, Samia Meme, Shareefa Cadeau, Yannick Chang-Tive, Maritza Jeannie and Trevor Vidot proudly show off their bounty, photo Elke Talma.

After a hard morning on the beach, many complaining about the heat and lack of shade, the students settled on a neighbouring beach for a well deserved lunch in the shade.

Students taking a well deserved break, photo Elke Talma.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A parting gift for Claire, MCSS style!

Turtle hatchlings, a welcome surprise after a long walk, photo Elke Talma

MCSS would like to extend a well deserved “thank you” to Claire Jean of Kelonia for joining us in Seychelles and presenting her project on photo-Identification of turtles in two local workshops entitled “Using images to help conserve endangered marine animals”.

During her time in Seychelles, Claire spent a few days with Nature Seychelles, under the Seychelles/Reunion regional corporation agreement, showing the rangers of the Cousin Nature Reserve how to deploy nest temperature logger. While on Cousin, she saw more than 5 nesting turtles!

With the limited nesting population on the developed island of Mahe, due to over-exploitation, poaching and loss of nesting habitats, MCSS could not compete…or could we?

Not to be outdone, Elke invited Claire and some of her friends on a turtle patrol in the South of Mahe and managed to surprise them with some Hawksbill hatchlings - 198 in total and a first for Claire!

Claire with her first hawksbill hatchlings, photo Elke Talma