Sunday, August 19, 2007

Turtles and summer threats

Things are totally back to normal here as if Dean’s threat never existed. Let’s hope that was the last one of the season to be forecast close to us. Even passing 150 miles to our south Dean managed to give us some strong (35 mph) winds and big waves up to 15 feet in unsheltered areas. There was no damage from hurricane Dean here in Antigua apart from beach erosion. This erosion couldn’t come at a worse time though as it is peak turtle nesting season.
Of course the beaches will get back to normal in no time, but many Hawksbill turtle nests have been washed into the sea. At 1 in 10000 eggs reaching maturity this species could do without hurricane season. My sister Francis Fuller just started working with Antigua's Environment Division and called me yesterday telling me about a nest they found partially washed into the sea at Jabberwock Beach. She said it had recently hatched out so the little guys had already got into the sea. Turtles have evolved in ways which help them in so many situations, but for some reason they haven’t figured out that hurricane season isn’t a good time for beach nesting. I dunno there are other factors possibly which make hurricane season good for nesting. After all, this type of beach erosion from storms only happens once in a blue moon. In fact, the seas are way rougher in the winter months than they are on average in the summer. As long as a hurricane doesn’t pass that close the little eggs will be fine while they sit tight in that sandy nest for 60 nights. If the females are the lucky ones of the season they will return to nest on these beaches twenty years later. With all the changes mankind is bringing upon planet earth there is much uncertainty about what they may find when they come back to nest. For now though, the turtles coming in to nest this next week will be fine on many of our 365 beaches.
Last week while doing an Xtreme Circumnav I found a freshly hatched out Leatherback turtle nest on Rendezvous bay.
I was doing a walk on the beach checking for fresh nests as we are part of the Antigua Turtle Study run by the EAG and Mykl Clovis, when I came across the nest. The usual tell tale signs of the recent hatch were on the surface. Little white folded over egg shells were scattered around a small indentation in the sand. We were running a bit late, but I quickly started digging up the old nest to check for stragglers. It was slow as the sand on Rendezvous is so fine and it kept falling back into my excavation. I found many successfully opened shells and two or three that seemed to have been unfertilized. I found one that contained what felt like a turtle that didn’t make it. Leatherback turtles are the largest of all turtles and incredibly endangered. Of course there are some beaches on the planet where they come up to nest in large numbers, but in general their numbers are dangerously low. Anyway, the egg was half way between a golf and tennis ball in size and was fairly soft. I opened it worried about the possible smell. To my surprise the dead baby leatherback inside was very fresh and had no smell at all. The nest must have just hatched the night before and the poor little fella looked as if it were just sleeping. It was curled up as if still inside the eggs protection. I guess that’s the turtle fetal position, but it was holding the egg yoke which never got a chance to be its final sustenance before it began its journey into the Atlantic.
I know the odds are such that it’s very common to find little unfortunates like this but it still was sad to see it like that. Time was running out for our time at Rendezvous and I had to get back to drive the boat back along the remainder of the tour. The rum punch stop, our last stop was at an end. I took the turtle to show the guests and Mykl as well. The photo shows the poor thing in my hand. I guess the good news is that although I didn’t dig up the entire nest, it seemed as though most of the eggs had successfully hatched out. The next day I had a private charter which went to Rendezvous on its first stop. I decided to go and finish digging up the nest with Tony. Some of the guests came along with me and within minutes we pulled out a hatchling. To my surprise is moved, but I could tell immediately that it wasn’t in good shape at all. Its soft shell looked a little out of shape and the movements were so slow that I was sure it was about to die and even said so. The two guests said that we should put it in the water and it did seem to get a little more active once in the sea where it belonged. IT wasn’t strong enough to swim though and I wasn’t sure about its chances. The guests kept it trying to see if it would get stronger and while Tony and I finished digging up the nest and another one near it the little straggler appeared to waken up a bit more. We took it back to the boat putting it into a dark bucket with a little water so that it would be wet but relaxed in the darkness. I got on the phone with Mykl and then Sarah at the Jumby Bay turtle project. They agreed that we should keep it for Jebson a turtle volunteer who has had quite a bit of luck rehabilitating turtles that didn’t make it out of their nests. By the time the sun set, the turtle was looking much better and although I still wasn’t convinced the weak creature would pull through I was beginning to think that against all the odds, it just may be ok. Later we delivered it to Jebson who said that he thought it looked pretty good and thought that he could release it in a few days. He had some special food that he would give it the next day. Unfortunately as if destined to become part of the statistics, the baby leatherback took its last breath that night. Sitting alone in that nest out of the protection of its egg for days was just too much for Rene as we ended up calling her. Her brothers and sisters are now out in the Atlantic trying to be the lucky few that make it back to Rendezvous bay in the distant future. The study that I spoke about which is taking place here in Antigua is finding out so many things about Antigua’s nesting turtle population and the threats that it faces on a daily basis. There is plenty more to find out and although there is currently only funding for this summers study, I hope that it may continue next year. Turtles around the world need all the help they can get. Maybe I will try to set up some sort of donation thing on this blog so that the EAG’s study may continue. The one over at Jumby Bay has been going on for over 20 years and is now one of the world’s leading studies.