Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hawksbill Turtle Nesting Season Is Back Again!!

The hawksbill turtle nesting season 2012-2013 got underway on the 16th July 2012. As with past seasons, the Marine Conservation Society of Seychelles (MCSS) turtle monitoring team start the season with the usual once weekly patrol of the nesting beaches in the South, South East and South West of  the Island of Mahe. The patrol frequency will increase to twice a week in September and eventually three times per week during its peak from October- February 2013.

There are two species of marine turtles that nests in the Seychelles waters. Chelonia mydas (green turtle) nest mostly at night throughout the year and Eretmochelys imbricata (hawksbill turtle) nest seasonally only during daytime.

At this time of year hawksbill turtles swim very long distances from their feeding ground to the Seychelles waters where they will mate and tirelessly crawl up the beach to deposit their precious loads of egg clutches in the sand to incubate, before returning back to their feeding ground.  Around 30-35 years ago these females hawksbill turtle were among some very tiny hatchlings which incubated on one of the nesting beaches of the Seychelles Islands. Now they are back again every two years to once again continue the nesting turtle cycle. Luckily some of the marine turtles might be able to safely make it back to sea while others might not be that lucky at this time when they are most vulnerable to poachers.

During the past four weeks only two nests have been recorded so far. The 1st turtle nest (hawksbill) was recorded on the 1st of August 2012 at Anse Grand Police after some heavy rainfall which occurs in the southern region.  During the last turtle patrol, lots of crab holes were seen in the nest and some eggshells were also found which indicate some crabs have been busy partying with fresh turtle eggs. Frequent dog activity also indicates that the nest has been partly dug up by stray dogs. 

 Predated Eggshell from the 1st nest at Anse Grand Police, dug up by crabs.

Another Hawksbill turtle nest was recorded on Saturday the 11th August 2012 at Anse Intendance (Photo below) by the Banyan Tree Resort turtle monitoring staff. The turtle probably nest the day before as no tracks were seen above the high water mark along the beach. We hope during the incubation period, the nest will incubate safely due to some sand erosion presently happening along the beach. 

Hawksbill turtle nest (2012-2013 season) at Anse Grand Police and Anse Intendance respectively.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Monitoring Marine Life on Denis Island

MCSS developed a protocol for assessing the biodiversity and abundance of coral and fish in the waters surrounding the islands of North and Denis as a part of the MFF funded Coastal Development project in association with the Green Islands Foundation (GIF).  

Since these initial surveys, every six months MCSS conducts coral and fish surveys in these areas as a part of the Green Islands Foundation (GIF) GEF funded Protected Areas Project.  Last week I traveled to Denis Island with Georgia French (Project Coordinator) in order to conduct such surveys, as well as to pilot a new method for conducting turtle surveys in the Seychelles.

After a short flight from Mahé to Denis, we settled in to our accommodation on the staff estate and had a bite to eat before getting to work.  The dive center was short on clients that afternoon, so they took us on a private cruise to the dive sites Batfish and Aquarium, where we started our surveys.  Georgia surveyed fish while I surveyed coral, swimming a 50 meter belt transect and recording the percentage of substrate covered by hard and soft coral 2.5 meters to either side of the transect and every 5 meters along the transect.  

Doing the marine transect surveys
The coral cover was sparse, with no soft coral in sight, and the substrate was like the ruins of a long-lost civilization: a memory of the beauty and grandeur which once existed but can now only be found in the imagination.  I could see the remains of the reef which at one time danced with color, but the area had been hit hard by the bleaching and tsunami events of the last fifteen years, and recovery is a slow process.  Fortunately, it appeared that the reef is slowly recovering, with coral cover being dominated by numerous small patches of fast-growing corals.  Continued monitoring will give more information, but hopefully the area will continue to improve, although it may never reach its former glory.

Meyer's butterfly fish (or Maypole butterfly fish) one of the colourful inhabitants of the Denis Island reef
The next day, following an early breakfast, we headed to the seagrass beds which surround most of Denis to try a new method of conducting turtle surveys.  This method involved me being tied, literally, to Georgia while we snorkeled through the seagrass beds and counted turtles, sharks, rays, and any other interesting encounters.  We were supported by two friends from GIF who followed in a kayak, also counting the turtles they saw.  Georgia’s and my position in the water allowed us to record the size, species, and, if possible, sex of the turtles we encountered, while our friends’ positions in the kayak provided a verification of our count.  

Snorkelling surveys for turtles in the shallow waters
After a morning filled with snorkeling for turtles, during which we also saw numerous thornyback rays, a juvenile lemon shark, juvenile Picasso Triggerfish (so cute when they’re tiny!), and many other fish, we returned to the dive center for one more coral/fish survey.  This one we did as a shore dive, swimming out to the house reef, which was an intricate, though shallow, underwater environment.  Unfortunately, the coral cover here was even less substantial and diverse than at the other sites.

That afternoon Georgia and I went looking for Seychelles Paradise Flycatchers, an endemic bird found only on La Digue and Denis islands.  Georgia had done work with flycatchers on Denis previously, so she knew their general territories and how to find them, and was able to show me a nesting female and its mate, which was a fun experience.

The next morning we conducted one more turtle survey, seeing numerous green turtles.  On the walk along the beach back to the dive center I saw my first turtle tracks, a green turtle’s, though, even after scaling a steep erosion cliff and digging in two places, she failed to lay any eggs.  Our work finished, and a day ahead of schedule, we grabbed a quick bite to eat before boarding our flight back to Mahé.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Anouk's first turtle experiences...

Hey, my name is Anouk. I am following the Erasmus Mundus Master Programme in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation and in this framework I am currently doing an internship at MCSS for 3 weeks. 

On 4 April 2012 I took part in my first turtle walk. The general idea of turtle walk is to monitor the turtles’ nesting (surprisingly, Hawksbill turtle tend to nest during daylight hours in Seychelles) and check on the nests. If a recently hatched nest is found (indicated by hatchling tracks) the number of hatched as well as unhatched eggs are counted. 

In order to do that we walk along beaches that are potential nesting sites at the high-water line. This is because nesting takes place above high-tide mark, so adult or hatchling tracks should be seen here (don’t get confused by omnipresent crab tracks). As well as recording nests and turtles, we also note down human impacts like sunbathers, swimmers, boats, dogs, etc. Additionally, for some beaches we evaluate the suitability for nesting by rating the accessibility (foreshore area, erosion cliff,…) and the quality of the beach plateau for nesting. It is impressive to see how much a beach can change within one week! 

Last week we were lucky and actually came across hatchling tracks on Anse Bazarca – which, to be honest, I wouldn’t have been able to identify as such and would’ve just thoughts it’s crab tracks again – but luckily enough our eagle-eyed turtle specialist Uzice has years of experience and know-how! After some minutes of searching in the vegetation we were able to locate the nest under some dry leaves the mother had put there to disguise it and in this way protect her offspring. In order to count the eggs we started burrowing – and very soon after we started digging we discovered it: a lonely hatchling who had apparently been struggling to free itself from the nest and make its way to the sea ever since its 202 siblings had had started their journey of life successfully! 

 Anouk checks out the lone hatchling

So we liberated it from the sand and carried it to the end of the vegetation, to make its life a bit easier and to speed up the process.  You might wonder why we didn’t just carry it all the way to the water, but female turtles return to the beach they were born on for their own nesting, so they need to mark the location in their own imaginary map in order to find their way back one day – given they survive until maturity and find a mate! 

 Anouk guards the lone hatchling as it struggles down the beach

So, after putting it down at the beginning of pure sand I stayed with my little fosterling and was going to protect it from all evils (birds, crabs, dogs, …) on its way across the beach. Our particular little hatchling, however, started walking in loops and circles after a little while because one of its flippers seemed to be numb (we cannot tell if this disability is the reason for or a result of its struggling in the nest) – so we were forced to carry our little ‘Nemo’ turtle with its lucky fin up to the shoreline, where it made its last steps towards the sea on its own. We waved goodbye as he escaped into the sea and we will keep our fingers crossed that in a couple of year’s time it will be grown up and graze in the coral reef just like the adult Hawksbill I came across while diving the other day. And that she will come back to this very beach to burrow a nest of her own and lay her eggs one day (or that he fertilizes the eggs of his mate successfully in case he's a male). 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Trio of Tiny Turtle Tearaways

Volunteer intern 'Pedro' relates the story of three lucky hatchlings...

Although we’re approaching the end of the Hawksbill nesting season and fewer turtles are coming ashore to lay eggs, this just means it’s about the right time for many of the eggs to hatch. Most nesting happens in the south of Mahe, but yesterday at the fishing harbour in Bel Ombre, three wayward hatchlings were discovered by Marcel, a boat mechanic. Hatchlings usually emerge from their nest at night, because it’s safer then, so seeing them on land in the daytime is unusual. Sitting in the hot sun isn’t good for hatchlings (or for people!), so Tony, the Dive Instructor, placed them gently in a nice cool bucket of seawater to keep them safe while they were taken back to the Underwater Dive Centre.

The hatchlings doing laps in their temporary home
Most of the MCSS staff, and myself, were working hard in the office when the telephone rang with news of the find, but since it’s rare to see hatchlings we all decided to take the opportunity to help. David drove Georgia and me to the Dive Centre where we found everyone watching the little turtles swimming around in their temporary home, knocking their beaks and shells into the plastic of the bucket as they followed their instinct to swim out to sea.

Pedro becomes the turtle carrier and guardian for the afternoon
Having torn the turtles away from their audience, we then drove them north to Carana beach, picking up Gareth and Laura on the way, and trying not to let the water slosh all over the truck. I must make an excellent human shock-absorber, as not a drop was spilled. After locating the hairpin bend at the top of the steep track to the beach (and some excellent truck manoeuvering by David) we selected a spot away from the rock plateau that would have stopped the hatchlings from getting out to sea.
Picturesque Carana beach, the ideal release location

When turtle hatchlings are relocated like this, it’s usual to let them make their own way to the sea, but because they had already done their imprinting walk and then got washed back ashore we decided to release them directly into the sea. As the waves were quite big we had to time it so that the waves didn’t wash the little scamps back onto the beach, so after a wave broke we gently placed them in the water to let the current wash them away from the beach, and waved goodbye forever.
Pedro releases his hatchling, fingers crossed for the little chap!

If they manage to get to deeper water without being eaten by something, the hatchlings will spend the next few years in the open ocean, until they reach an age when they will start foraging from the seafloor in shallower water. It takes around 30 years for Hawksbills to mature to breeding age, so if any of them were female, who knows - they may be back to lay their own eggs in years to come.