Capturing the Diversity – a fatal emergence

I was drawn back to Long Beach morning after morning.  I’d arrive soon after sunrise to see the last straggling females making their way back down the beach.  It reminded me of the descriptions of the sea tanks in John Wyndham’s “The Kraken Wakes”.  They are either unperturbed by people taking photographs of them in the morning, or at least resigned to the fact they can do little about it.  In the daylight you see just how long and lumbering their walk is.  In the time it took me to walk from end to end of Long Beach and back, a turtle may just about make it from their nest to the sea.   If they are lucky they get a helping slide down where the waves have eaten into the beach.   Once in the water, though, and buoyant, they seem to give the land a final wave with a flipper and then skedaddle quickly into the deeps.

A colleague from St Helena, Nikki,  arrived on a flight from the UK while I was there and she joined me on one of these morning walks.  As well as a few adult females making their way back to the sea, we almost stumbled on a nest where hatchlings were poking out of the sand.  In the centre of the nest pit, a cluster of little black turtle heads were poking up.  We cleared the sand away and they started to vigorously flap their slippers and release themselves from the sand.  Some escaped and started to head off in different directions.  By brushing a little sand away we seemed to have started a whole mechanism going below the sand and now the area was erupting with 20-30 little turtles.

Neither of us were turtle experts so we just stood back and watched for a while.  Most of the babies were heading seaward but a few were rambling aimlessly up and down the nests.  Like little clockwork automaton, the legs kept on moving whatever they came across and often they tripped up on themselves and fell back down into the nest, or seemed to go round in circles when they reached an obstacle.  Nikki tried to help some of them reach the sea, but that was probably the worst thing to do. Waiting in the shallows were a shoal of the piranha like blackfish. Almost before a baby had learnt how to swim the shoal were on it, grabbing a leg each and the head and pulling the poor creature apart.  Frigate birds were also patrolling up and down the beach, and the crabs were not far behind.  Daytime is the worst time for a newly born turtle to try and make that treacherous journey.  At night you are still prone to a series of ravenous predators but at least you stand a faint chance. In the full daylight you were doomed.  I don’t think one of those turtles made it that day.

We were feeling rather hopeless as more turtles were still emerging from the nest, when I spied Jacqui Ellick and her dog.  Jacqui is the queen of turtle monitoring on Ascension Island; she has patrolled beaches for nigh on twenty years.  Her husband, Ray, is a senior manager for Cable and Wireless and Jacqui initially took up turtle counting as a hobby.  Over the years, mainly down to the continuity of her service, she has provided reams of very important data that help scientists like Brendan and Annette monitor the success of green turtles.

We asked her advice on our emerging hatchlings.  She had a kind of modesty that suggested she knew nothing, but you didn’t stay a layman after so much time on one subject.  She shrugged her shoulders and said ” I dunno, I suppose you might just cover them up with sand.”  We piled sand over the black bodies and they immediately went still.  Lesson learnt and more respect to Jacqui for her knowledge.  There are obvious trigger mechanisms in a nest which make the hatchlings move.  And if there is sand covering the top ones they stop moving.  The lack of motion means the pile of turtles underneath also stay inactive.  But if the top ones are exposed then they start moving and the action sends shockwaves right through the nest and they erupt.

On my final morning on Ascension Island, I arranged to join Jacqui on the next count on Long Beach.  Tasha came along too and we had a fantastic walk and logged some useful data.  I’d been working with Jacqui since the start making a simple database to log her counts and we’d refined it over the years, but this was the first chance in seven years that I had seen how she collected her data for real.

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Capturing the Diversity – counting the turtle tracks

One of the key conservation tasks at this time of year was to record how many turtles were successfully laying on the beach.  Next morning  I joined Sam on Long Beach.  In the clear early morning light, he let his dog off the lead and we started near the turtle ponds and walked the full length of the beach.  As you went along, you looked out for turtle tracks.  The aim was to count all the tracks and divide by two and that gave you the number of the turtles beaching.  But it was a bit more complicated than that.  You had to beware of those turtles who might come up on the beach and, for whatever reason, decide not to nest that night or abandon their digging before laying any eggs; so called false crawls.  So once you got a track you had to trace where it went and if it led to a nest. So there was much tooing and froing along the beach before we were able to come to the final figure.  The fresh nests were easy to spot as the sand was rucked and often still damp.

The remains of last nights’ activity were plain to see. Some previous nests were disturbed and there were what looked like golf balls strewn over the sand.  Crabs were busily picking at them  in full view.  Because the egg laying season was coming to an end, some of the older nests had little tiny footmarks coming out of them and heading mostly for the sea.  The hatchlings were starting to emerge from nests and hundreds of tiny flippers had crossed the sand from about twenty nests the night before.  I saw one that had not made it, a little dead black body splayed in a hole.  And Sam found one poor hatchling who was still alive but had failed to muster enough strength to emerge from his egg.

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Still stuck in his eggshell

We made our count and recorded it in Sam’s notebook then headed back to the our respective breakfast tables.