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Turtle watching on Union Island begins

Turtle watching on Union Island begins

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25.MAR.11

by: Jonathan Underwood and Stanton Gomes

It’s the month of March and the Start of the Turtle Watch Season 2011 on Union Island. On Saturday, March 19, many members of the Union Island Environmental Attackers, a local community based organization in St Vincent & The Grenadines were out in force.{{more}} Most had already donned their headlamps, shoes, pants and dark clothing—they had done this before, and something had kept them coming back. You are about to find out why.

We arrived to the secluded path, at the crest of the hill leading down to Bloody Bay, at around 10 pm. Katrina Collins, President for the group, led us in a prayer of safe return, Roseman Adams gave the requisite safety/conservation talk for the first timers of the group, and we set off down the trail. The full moon peeked through the sparse clouds, shining so brightly it cast shadows through the trees during our descent. I’ve heard a lot about how the moon was very close to the earth at that moment—I believe it—Apollo held a spotlight over Union that night.

Our guest of honour could not have arrived with better timing. After only twenty minutes on the beach, a huge Leatherback sea turtle bumped her way in on the surf. The excitement in the group was remarkable. At first quiet, still, tense—so as not to discourage her from coming up. Once Roseman (who is a certified handler, and was on the front line of contact) identified her as a Leatherback, and saw she was settling and beginning to ‘body pit’, he gave the OK to come closer. I was finally witnessing one of these giants, lit by the moon, as she stroke her way up the beach, and started throwing sand around. What a scene.

We waited while she pitted, wallowed, flung sand around, and finally settled on her spot. Then, she began to dig. With her hind flippers, which are about the size of a small dinner plate, she made her nest. Each stroke resembles the most practiced and attentive of motions. Like the hands of a surgeon, she dug a perfectly round pit, about 60 cm in diameter, and almost a meter deep. We waited, with lights off, as she finished her nest.

I wasn’t expecting the switch to flip so fast: Roseman had described the trance state turtles enter while they’re laying – but these, the experienced watchers, resembled a conservation swat team as the turtle began to lay.

“Get ready..” Roseman said camly, his red light already trained on her caripace, several other red turtle lights glowing on the perimeter.“NOW! There’s the first one!” Five watchers, with preassigned roles descended on the creature. “Switch to white, and start the count.” Two members of the squad, young, small, and comfortably perched on the side of the nest switched their headlamps to bright white light and relayed the count of blanks to the record keeper. The blanks are infertile eggs, slightly smaller which are intended to insulate and protect the bottom, and top of the nest. They are the first and last eggs laid.

Stanton, the photographer for the night, immediately started snapping shots of the creature, and the people at the watch. Measuring tapes were drawn by others for several dimensions; it measured six feet seven inches from mouth to flipper tip. A diagram was drawn depicting body shape, previous injuries, and distinguishing features of the organism. In this flurry of action, all had an opportunity to touch the turtle—and see her up close. She laid over 100 eggs, and afterwards took great care in covering them, and patting the soil down.

Judging by her size, it very well could have been her first laying season. She may be as young as 25, or as old as 27, but it is unlikely she is much older. What that means is this may be her first time on land since she hatched a quarter century ago. She has lived with no parental care, and no instructions on nesting. Instinct has guided her through the motions, over three hours of surgical motions, to lay her eggs here at Bloody Bay. That kind of meticulous genetic programming, of complex adaptation must be a reason the species has lasted millions of years, through mass extinctions, environmental changes. We can only hope that they also survive perhaps their biggest challenge in an epoch: problematic primates.

And then came the tag. This girl had not been tagged. Roseman acquired the pre-fab stainless number tag, the application forceps, and placed it on her hind-left flipper—out of the way in a comfortable position. He offered for two of the tourist guests, Germans living in Canada, to name her. They chose “Anneliese,” and so it was—a fine sea-faring name. Anneliese’s name, and tag number were added to her data perimeter.

Anneliese rose from her trance and began the final stage of her task. Like three year old in a sandbox, she tossed the grains left and right-and scooted around from side to side. At times she was smoothing the areas, at other making big divots. This went on for another half an hour, while the group chatted and cracked jokes. As Anna-Liza began her descent towards the water, Rose noticed a slight problem: she was headed towards me. Turtles navigate down the beach by looking for white light—which is naturally only seen on the foamy break line of the surf. My T-shirt, however, was white, and glowing under the moon. I quickly juked to the side, behind the shadow of a dude dressed in black, but I think she was a little disoriented…

“I could take this thing off—but I’m afraid my skin might be whiter!” I said, gaining some quality belly laughs from the Union islanders around me. Sorry, Anneliese, I know that was a long night. Next time, I’ll wear black…

She circled around one more time, and finally made her way, arduous sweep by arduous sweep, back into the waves. She took a deep breath, and disappeared into the sea.

The turtle watching work was not quite over. All sixteen of us started a sort of turtle watch ‘dust-up’. Kicking sand, raking sand, throwing sand, and rolling around on the sand are all acceptable techniques. The purpose? To cover her tracks, body pits, flipper strokes, and ultimately her nest. In essence, turtle tracks were changed to human tracks—hiding her bounty from poachers, who walk this beach. They carry long sticks to probe the sand until they come up slimey-wet from the eggs. It’s a simple way of finding a nest, but the turtle watch dust up should make it a little more difficult to narrow the search, since the whole beach was covered in footprints—without turtle tracks.

So off we went, back up the hill, back into the van, back to Ashton, Clifton, and spots in between. I returned home with the hope that some of the thousands of Leatherbacks that hatch in the Caribbean this year will mature—avoiding plastic bags, propellers, and poachers in the Atlantic. I wish them a safe welcome to Bloody Bay, to carefully lay the nests of the next generation.

The Environmental Attackers is a Non-Profit Group based in Union Island working to protect the environment, some of their activities includes Village Cleanups, Seminars, Turtle Watching and Bird Watching, more of their work can be found on www.environmentalattackers.org . The SVG National Trust recently launched a Project that would see the conservation effort of Leatherback Turtles strengthen and establish the Turtle Watching activity as a sustainable tourism product. Turtle Watching on Union Island is presently a growing activity attracting persons within the community and abroad. The next time you visit Union Island be sure to take the Turtle Hike and experience the breathtaking adventure of Turtle Watching.

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