Monday, April 23, 2012

Sea Turtle Talk Time, Internet Style

Afternoon people (except most people reading this are sleeping right now). Here at the Juara Turtle Project (JTP) we give a whole lotta turtle talks. On some days when the tourists are poppin' in on a constant basis we give more than a lot, as we can be consumed by turtle talkin' for easily over an hour or two. That's no problem though because most of the time the talks are fun and informative, but in a sense the info can be very depressing with a dash of optimism thrown in, too.

Two German tourists getting to know Jo the Green Sea Turtle on one of our turtle talks.
Why depressing? Well, let me give a sea turtle talk to y'all, it's going to be in broad strokes so if you know a lot about these creatures already, sorry in advance for the repetition (you guys can just look at the photos). This is the JTP turtle talk, Internet edition! So there's no way to sugar coat the facts. Sea turtles are in SERIOUS trouble. To put it simply: there just ain't a lot left of 'em in the world's oceans. Only seven species exist and all have the unfortunate status of "endangered" or "critically endangered." Hundreds of millions of Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) used to swim in the Earth's tropical and subtropical oceans. In 2004, after a worldwide accumulation of data, only about 89,000 female turtles were coming ashore to nest. Male sea turtles never come ashore, only the females, so getting a line on total population #s is rather tricky.

A Green Sea Turtle laying eggs on Mentawak Beach on 14 April 2012.
I don't want to ramble on forever about turtles (trust me, I can ramble, anyone who has ever received a voice mail from me can attest to it) so I'll try to keep this post neat and to-the-point. On Tioman Island here we used to get 4 species of sea turtle: the aforementioned Green, the giant Leatherback (the largest sea turtle, they can weigh up to 500 kg, sorry America, we're metric system now!), Hawksbills and Olive Ridleys. As Tom Petty sings, the Leatherback and Olives "don't come a-round here anymore." Luckily, the Green and Hawksbill still do. A reason for the drastic decline in sea turtle numbers on Tioman is that people collected the eggs to eat. People who lived here ate them, as did tourists who came to the island. And they were collecting the whole caboodle so no new babies were reaching the ocean. You can see where this is going: no new babies = very few remaining turtles returning to Tioman. Female turtles return to nest at the site they were born at. Talk about impressive: Tioman turtles will swim to the Philippines and Australia to feed, then turn around and haul shell back here to drop off their next generation.

Charles Fisher sadly looking at a poached nest on Mentawak Beach. Unfortunately JTP didn't find it in time. It's a photo of a photo.
So at JTP we patrol the beach we live behind on a nightly basis, multiple times per night depending on when high tide is. We look for turtles, or turtle tracks, and if there is a nesting female we collect her eggs and then place them in our hatchery on the beach. We're also patrolling two beaches south of Juara Bay by boat in the morning. After 2 months the babies all come up at the same time and then we release them exactly where we found them. Those cute little flipper happy turtles want to get to the ocean as fast as they can once they're born. If 1 out the 129 Hawksbill eggs Alli placed in our hatchery this morning survive then that's a success. The females drop a lot of eggs, but not many of them make it.

Alli placing 129 Hawksbill eggs into our hatchery. We found this nest earlier this morning on a nearby beach.
The other threats are everywhere, mostly human-caused. Drowning in fishing nets is a large one (shrimping, long-lining, etc.). Being reptiles these creatures need to breathe so they can only hold there breath for so long (an hour is pushing it to the brink for most species). People still eat their meat (turtle steak used to be a common cuisine) and eggs, and turn their shells into tourist trinkets. Boats hit them, too. Light pollution scares nesting females away, and the ever-encroaching beast known as "development" swallows up nesting habitat every year. Trash in our waters gets mistaken as food: plastics bags look like jellyfish, cigarette butts are the shape of a floating snack.

What Green Sea turtle tracks look like. We look for these on our nightly walks. These tracks are from the above female in the photo laying eggs.
Bam! Have I got you depressed yet? Sorry, the numbers are sobering and like I said, trying to sugar coat deep fried gruel is tough. But here at JTP we're trying to help out as much as we can. We patrol the beaches, collect the eggs and get as many babies in the ocean as possible. We are working on sea turtle friendly lighting for the nesting beach in front of us. Protecting nesting habitat is also on the docket. Education and outreach is always important. We are open to the public, and like I said before, we give a lot of turtle talks on a daily basis. And working with the fisheries department and the marine park around Tioman is a priority as well. A postive side to all this: communities and organizations that have continually collected eggs and released them for 30+ years (coincidentally how long a lot of species take to reach sexual maturity) have seen nesting increases. That's more turtles on the beach mon. It takes time to turn things around, but it can be done.
That's a lot of dead turtle on the line. Unfortunately this happens all too often. Another photo of a photo.
So what can individuals do? I'll touch upon this in another post as I believe I have broken my own goal, and have rambled on for a quite a bit. But remember: it isn't just about sea turtles. A striking number of species face extinction in the ocean, from huge sharks to smaller ugly fish (the Monkfish anyone?) The hope is since sea turtles are sexy charismatic megafauana (for instance: not many people hate on sea turtles, but folks sure do hate rattlesnakes) people will not only get involved to help their seven species, but the smorgasbord of other marine life that faces a continued battle to not blink out before my generation passes. Thanks for reading and if you have anyone questions about all this (and I know it's a lot) please do ask me or Alli.
Enlarge this photo to read. It's a great summary of the problems sea turtles, and a lot of marine life, face.

1 comment:

  1. Brian and Alli,

    Your work is important and vital to the planet. Everyone should adopt a species to help mother nature. Whether it is a bird house in the backyard, taking an injured reptile or mammal to a wildlife center or working in a lab, we can help preserve nature for future generations.

    Dr. Nancie Park