A Wildlife Conservation Society feature
For the past fourteen years, May twenty-third has been celebrated as World Turtle Day. The event is primarily to build awareness on the plight of the turtles because the shelled reptile is often the subject of abuse and mistreatment. In Belize, the day presented a perfect opportunity for turtle tagging at the Glovers Reef Marine Reserve which is recognized as a main habitat for juvenile and adult Hawksbill turtles. A team from the Wildlife Conservation Society teamed up with volunteers from Google and headed to Middle Caye for the process of capturing and satellite tagging of the reptile. The exercise also showed that there is a happy medium between conservation and technology. The following report was done in collaboration between News Five and Jose Sanchez.
Jose Sanchez, Reporting
The first few shaky crawls of a newly hatched turtle on a sandy beach into the waters of Belize is filled with uncertainty and hope. The movement and life of turtles in Belize are being researched through a partnership of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Fisheries Department with the use of cutting edge technology. To find out more, one must travel forty-five kilometres from the coast of Dangriga, beyond the reef and into the blue ocean to the Glovers Reef Atoll.
Virginia Burns Perez
Virginia Burns Perez, Technical Coordinator, WCS
“The program started in 2007 and since then we’ve conducted twelve-one week in-water surveys. Since then we’ve sighted eight hundred and forty-seven sea turtles and captured two hundred and ninety-nine. The majority of sightings and captures have been Hawksbills. The captured turtles are measured, weighed and flipper tagged and we collect tissue sample. We want to focus on what our adult turtles are doing. We know that that our juvenile and sub adults are hanging on the atoll and so we wanted to focus on the long range movement of our adult sea turtles. And so we have four satellite tags that we want to attach on four adults; primarily hawksbills but we’re also interested in the green sea turtles.”
The Glovers Reef Atoll is one of the seven marine protected areas that form the World Heritage Site. Charles Darwin in 1842 referred to our barrier reef as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” So it was no surprise how quickly the team spotted and captured turtles.
Lindolfo Chicas, Biologist, Fisheries Department
“My main role is as a snorkeler and a free diver. I was out there with the squad; we were snorkelling parallel to the coral reef. We were trying to spot the turtles. We would either attempt to get the turtle or ask for assistance. So that the other free divers come together and we would try to capture the turtles. I also helped with the process of tagging and putting the satellite tracker on the turtle and we went and released the turtle at the exact area where it was captured.”
The tagging process included volunteers from Google, who traded cyber space for an awe-inspiring place above and below the atoll. Within a sharp learning curve of one week the eight volunteers learned about conservation and how to attach satellite tags.
Sarah Henderson, Google Volunteer
“We brought the turtle back, took its measurements, took its weight. We basically sanded off the shell, made sure it had nice even spots to lay down the tag. We like to put the satellite tag on the highest point on the turtle. We basically laid down a layer of epoxy glue to create an adhesive to be able to lay down the satellite tag. And then to reinforce it we placed down a layer of fibreglass and another layer of epoxy glue to make sure that the actual satellite tag will actually sit on top of that turtle shell. After that there is actually epoxy glue like substance, like clay, and you have to roll it and you put two little logs underneath the satellite tag in a curved format so they can fit the top of the scoop. You put that down on top of the epoxy glue that you’ve laid on top of the shell. Then you reinforce all the sides.”
Walking on the rest of the island there is the possibility of encountering a hoard of land as well as hermit crabs. The station manager at Middle Caye explained that the pristine state of the island is a complement to the reserve.
Kenneth Gale, Station Manager, Middle Caye, WCS
“The main purpose of the island which is owned by the Wildlife Conservation Society is primarily to host research and scientists. They come here to study sea grass, corals, lobster, conch, any marine species. We also host the Fisheries Department of Belize out here, so they do have a space with us on Middle Caye. The island is about thirty-seven acres in total. About thirty of those acres are left intact. The other seven acres are used by the station itself.
“So, no touching of wildlife? Everything is left in a pristine state?”
“Yes, Wildlife Conservation Society’s motto is we save wildlife and wild places worldwide. So everything is left intact. There is no extraction here. And everything is protected. We have accommodations via dorms for twenty-four persons. We also have wifi internet. We have a full service kitchen. We have our own fleet of boats to get people to and from the mainland. We have boats that can be used to take researchers within the atoll as well. But we are looking to the local niche market of getting universities from Belize, probably tertiary level institutions to come here and visit the station and see what we offer here.”
Peter Weng, System and Partner Integrations, Google
“Folks volunteer to come out here and help and but I think we have seen a lot of things we can take back. We’ve had some really interesting discussions today about the technology that’s used. And so we’re going to go back and talk to our colleagues, some of whom work in the areas to see if there are ways that Google can help with technology and try to advance some of the conservation through technological efforts.”
“I think there is great potential for the intersection between conservation and technology and that’s something I really learned today. We are listening about the SMART Program, just the need for accurate ways to capture data and collect data to make sure we are implementing programs that are going to best help us monitor not only sea turtles but other specie populations here at Glovers Reef.”
According to WCS’s Technical Coordinator, the turtles are healthy and can travel great distances.
Virginia Burns Perez
“Some of the things we’ve learned so far from this program has been that the Glovers Reef Marine Reserve has a high density of juvenile and sub adult Hawksbill turtles which suggests that this is an important developmental, foraging ground for these Hawksbill turtles. Also from the Genetic study, preliminary analysis indicates that the Hawksbills turtles on the atoll primarily originate from the rookeries of Barbados and Cuba. Last year we included a health assessment component. We had two vets from wildlife Conservation Society’s office join us for surveys and we found that turtles on the atoll are in good overall health and free of fibro papylomas.”
The turtles have been released in the locations that they were captured on the atoll and the data are already being captured and their travels will help with the preservation of their species.
One of the objectives of the program is to build capacity in the country so over the past seven years WCS has invited other biologists from The Environmental Research Institute, the Belize Audubon Society, the Toledo Institute of Development and Environment and the Fisheries Department to participate in research on Middle Caye. To track the movement of the turtles yourself, follow the GRRS website and Facebook.