On Friday and Saturday nights there is usually an increase in the number of poachers on the beach, as people from nearby towns come to the beach to try their luck over the weekend. In response we sent out a lot of patrols trying to get to the turtles before the poachers.
On Friday night, for example, we had a leatherback nesting right in front of the station and we reached her only a mere matter of minutes before a team of poachers walked by. Expeditioner Scarlet from Bulgaria says that “it is amazing to me that nature can create such a beautiful creature and that I got to see this ancient nesting ritual”.
We carried 83 viable eggs back for reburial at the hatchery. This was nest number 100 in the hatchery for the season.
Later that same night we encountered the first hawksbill turtle of the season. If poachers encounter a hawksbill turtle, they will not only steal the eggs, but also kill the turtle for its shell. So it was imperative to transport the eggs to the safe hatchery and see the turtle back to sea, which we did.
Our impressive total now stands at seven leatherback nests (608 eggs) and one hawksbill nest (150 eggs) saved, 56 hours of beach patrolling and 39 hours of guarding the hatchery. By contrast, the poachers got four leatherback and one hawksbill nests poached, making the average approximately 65% in our favour.
In addition to patrolling, we have also been busy making hatchery baskets to place over the hatchery nests, cleaning the beach of plastic rubbish, and maintaining the hatchery, making sure it is predator-proof.
Our partner organisation LAST has also set up a weekly market day for community members to sell goods to our citizen scientists and the very few tourists that find their way to this remote beauty spot. Goods include fresh fruit, homemade coconut cake and turtle-themed jewellery.
Expeditioner Talar from the USA thinks “it’s great to able to support the community in this way too and providing an alternative income to poaching” and with this puts LAST’s thinking into a nutshell.
But I’ll let people and actions speak for themselves soon. Pictures are attached – and give us a few days to cut and produce some videos from the field too….
Wednesday morning Fabian had exciting news for us all. During the night a natural nest on the beach had hatched and that afternoon we were to excavate the nest to see if there were any stragglers left behind and what percentage of the eggs had not hatched.
When we started digging up the nest, we found five hatchlings that were still alive! They had been trapped in the nest unable to make their way out. Under normal conditions they would have died before making it to adulthood, as do about one in a thousand of them, including some hatchlings nearby that were trapped under a log. But now they had been given a second chance at life.
Inside the nest were also 52 eggs that had not hatched, all at various stages of development. Normally, an average of approximately 20% of eggs do not hatch. This can be due to fungal or bacterial infection, genetics or environmental causes. Out of the 52 eggs not hatched in this nest 25 were infected by a fungus.
Hatchling success rate in this nest was very low with only fifteen emerging, and out of those seven had died in the sun. Once Fabian had checked all the eggs and buried them in the sand it was time to see the five survivors to sea. We released them at the high tide mark and watched them make their way towards the waves. As they all disappeared into the sea, expeditioner Sherry called them “amazing fighters”.
The excitement didn’t end there. On Thursday we were told that another nest, which had been relocated from its original nest to a secret spot on the beach before the hatchery was built, had hatched. So we went to dig up the nest to study survival rates, but when we did, we found a full clutch of still viable, but unhatched eggs! As we had already disturbed the nest, we could not rebury them as this would significantly decrease chances of survival. Instead we reverted to the accepted alternative method and placed the eggs in a cooler box and covered them with moist sand. They now live next to the kitchen, and we are all anxious for them to hatch.
Our 2018 Costa Rica team arrived at Pacuare research station on Monday lunchtime. We were immediately thrown into the training so that we could start patrolling that very night to get to nest before the poachers. If we encounter a turtle, we take her eggs as well as measure and tag her. The eggs are then taken to a secure hatchery. At the hatchery the person on duty digs a new nest for the eggs that are then guarded 24/7, keeping the developing turtles safe.
Although walking along the beach in the dark and in tropical humidity is not an easy task, our first night yielded leatherback turtles straight away. “It was really impressive to see how big they are”, says expeditioner Gary. The larger of the two turtles measured 153 cm across its carapace (shell).
On Tuesday we completed our training with hatchery duties. This includes how to dig a turtle nest so that we can rebury the eggs correctly while on hatchery duty. It was a sandy affair as the nests are generally 75 cm deep and it is very hard to reach that deep into the sand. We were all covered head to toe in sand after and enjoyed a dip in the balmy sea. As part of our training we also learnt how to deal with any hatchlings that emerge during our shift and how to safely see them to sea.
The Tuesday late patrol, leaving the research station at midnight, encountered a turtle only 40 minutes out from the station. We watched her make her way out of the sea and dig a body pit in the sand before finally starting to dig her nest hole. At this point we joined her and got ready to insert the bag into her nest hole, “stealing” all her eggs. We also measured the length and width of her carapace and checked her tags. She was 147 cm long and she had a broken finger in her back flipper, perhaps from digging her nests. Our data later showed that this is the third time this same turtle has come ashore to lay eggs on Pacuare beach.
Once we had all the measurements and the eggs, we transported them back to the hatchery were Eva and Stefanie were on duty. They were elated to get to put their new learnt skills into practice and to dig their first hatchery nest. “There were 75 viable eggs and 40 yolkless eggs”, explained Eva after she and Stefanie had finished building the nest and transferred all the eggs.
The first nest in the hatchery is due to hatch any day now, so hopes are high and everyone is waiting in anticipation for the hatchlings to emerge.
I have arrived at Pacuare field station and Fabian and I are busy getting things ready for your arrival. I am excited to inform you that so far it has been a busy turtle nesting season and there are already 93 nests in the hatchery! The first hatchery nest is expected to hatch on the day of your arrival, so with a little luck it won’t be just Fabian and I greeting you when you arrive. There are also currently four research assistants at the station who will be helping us with our training and nightly patrols.
So far this season Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) have managed to relocate approximately 80% of the nests in to the guarded hatchery, with only 20% being taken by poachers. This is a great start to the season.
“A lot of the people in the village who used to poach turtle eggs have now found employment in town and as such there is no longer a need to poach for income. However, as the season progresses, it is likely poachers from further away will move in to take their place” explains Nicki from LAST. By the sounds of things, we will have a busy expedition with a lot of turtles coming ashore to nest.
Nicki will meet you at Hotel Santo Tomas at 09:00 on Monday and make sure you all get on the bus. Fabian and I will be at the dock to greet you when your bus arrives and will take you by boat to the field station. It is a beautiful boat ride – I spotted white-faced capuchin monkeys, crocodiles, a sloth and a myriad of birds on my ride here. However, it is the wet season and it can pour at any moment, so you keep your rain jacket handy for the boat journey (just in case).
Fabian and I and the rest of the crew look forward to meeting you all tomorrow.
Welcome to the Costa Rica 2018 expedition diary. My name is Ida Vincent and I will be your expedition leader. This will be my third year on this expedition and I look forward to being back at the Pacuare field station and working together with Latin America Sea Turtles (LAST).
The field station is located just behind the beach where the turtles nest and during our time in Pacuare we will work closely with the onsite biologist from LAST, Fabian Carrasco, who will be training us in sea turtle monitoring.
We both look forward to meeting you on 7May. Fabian and I will already be in Pacuare preparing the field station for you arrival. However, Nicki Wheeler from LAST will be meeting you at 09.00 in the lobby of Hotel Santo Tomas. Make sure to be on time as our first night of patrols starts that very evening and there is a lot to learn prior.
I hope you have read about the excellent results that came out of our last report, and that in reading the report, you have familiarised yourself with the work in hand and how it is conducted. It’s going to be quite a bit of work, but that’s exactly why we need you. Have another look through your dossier and check your packing list; remember that your head lamp need to have a red light mode.
I will be a few days ahead of you, preparing everything for your arrival together with Fabian and Nicki. I’ll send my next diary update from Pacuare with turtle and weather updates.
That’s all folks. Once again our expedition in the Azores has come to an end. Our citizen scientist have departed, the kit is packed and now myself and An must make our travels north, back to Scotland and Belgium. We’ve collectively had a great six weeks in the Azores. I have said this before, but expeditions offer many things, including difference, difficulty, diversity, discovery and of course data.
The last group have successfully added to that data in their last days, adding more records of loggerhead turtles, common dolphins, fin whales and seemingly the obligatory blue whale. I can’t remember a year on this expedition when we saw so many blues!
Before we talk about the discovery and data, let me initially offer some thanks. First off, to our citizen scientists, who stepped up to the daily challenge of data collection to achieve our collective goal of better understanding the ecology of the cetaceans and turtles of the Azores. You’ve all contributed to advancing this knowledge, and making this expedition a success. Thank you!
However, we must offer more thanks. Firstly to the back office staff at Biosphere Expeditions. There is always a lot of unseen work and preparation for any expedition. Secondly, thanks to Jim (and family) at Banana Manor, who have been our hosts for the past few weeks, giving us all a second home. I also extend our gratitude to Eugenio, Carey and Pete, who (amongst others) have catered for our variety of dietary needs. I must also not forget our skipper Jairo, who not only took us to sea, but ensured we knew the sea state, wind direction, cetacean locations and always got us back to port safely – thanks Jairo. And finally, our enormous collective thanks go to Lisa, our leader in all things scientific. It is indeed a privilege to share in your world and work with such a dedicated field biologist and cetacean scientist.
This year we’ve collected data earlier than any other previous expedition, giving us a unique and extended insight into cetacean movements. The lack of cetaceans on some days, or the challenging sea states may have frustrated us on occasion, but overall we’ve been able to amass a huge amount of data, that without Biosphere Expeditions, wouldn’t have been collected.
Here are just some of our highlights:
We’ve deployed four teams into the field, comprising 11 different nations, including people from 18 to 80+ years old;
We completed 22 days at sea, totalling in excess of 120 hours of surveys, covering 100s of miles of the ocean, and only ‘fed the fish’ on a few occasions;
We’ve collected data on at least 9 different cetacean species (5 whale and 4 dolphin species) and 1 turtle species;
Our total encounters with cetaceans exceed 120, and yes, simple statistics will tell you that almost one for every hour at sea;
We’ve also sighted and recorded over 1020 different individuals, and a staggering 57 loggerhead turtles;
We’ve also recorded 18 blue whales. Yes, we’ve ‘run into’ the biggest creature that has ever graced our planet, almost everyday we went to sea;
We also already have matches for three species of whale (sperm, blue and humpback) to other locations; and we continue to work on the matching and ID work undertaken by each group.
In isolation, these may just seem like bits of data, as field research rarely gives us instant results or fast answers to our bigger questions. But we’ve collected a huge baseline of data at a ‘new’ time of year for the expedition. The full results will soon become clearer in the expedition report.
So what of the success I mentioned? Well, I think the summary statistics highlight the success, but success isn’t always easy to measure, particularly when it comes to expeditions. It is influenced by the people you meet, the new experiences you have, the challenges you overcome, the wildlife you see…to mention a few. Ultimately, it is perhaps most dependent on your expectations.
We all come on expeditions for different reasons and with different expectations. No matter whether you are a citizen scientist, a professional scientist or an expedition leader, we all go on expeditions with a varying mix of nerves, hope and expectation. For many it may be for a new experience, to explore, to be enthused, educated, entertained and even enlightened! Some are lucky enough to achieve their dreams…
As leaders, we are the lucky ones to get to experience most of this, but we are also exhausted. So as we prepare to depart, we offer a final thank you for all your efforts and look forward to returning next year. And as always, we let the expedition speak through its picture and the group in their own words.
The expedition continues to run its steady course. These past few days out at sea have been a real treat. The blue whales have crossed our paths every single day, becoming our favourites, even if these giants tend to be slightly elusive and play hide-and-seek in a vast ocean.
Nonetheless the team managed to get relevant data and valuable photos of multiple individuals that have been sent out to the experts and are now awaiting ‘matching’ – to see where else in the world ‘our’ whales have been recorded. One blue whale we followed even turned out to be two individuals, when going through Lisa’s images. These clearly revealed distinct patterns on the back of each.
This Sunday the lookouts detected multiple blows in different directions (South of Faial) and soon we realised we were not just following one fin whale but rather three, plus another blue whale! As a cetacean citizen scientist, you can of course never have ‘too many whales’ around, even if recording data can become a bit tricky. So with that spirit in mind we managed to add a humpback whale onto the data list before heading back to port – well spoted Anne!
And it is not just the cetaceans that keep us company…. Along our boat plenty Portuguese man-o-war, a jellyfish species, sail by, of which several will be eaten by the drifting loggerhead turtles we regularly observe resting at the surface. Cory’s shearwaters can also be seen in great numbers, walking on water as they take off and gliding as true masters of the sky just above the waves hardly flapping their wings. The smaller common terns are faster and gone in a blink of an eye. A rarer sighting was the Northern gannet, a species that occasionally visits these waters.
As days go by, the waves grow taller and the winds get stronger, resulting in noticeable progress in the seafarer’s skills of our citizen scientists: solid sea legs, unfazed stomachs, enhanced whale-spotting skills, navigational insights, weather monitoring, species identification and so on. For many the being out at sea is as much part of the adventure as the cetaceans.
Winfried took on the challenge of data recording on the front deck under the spray of a series of waves, while Julia was braving flying buckets of seawater to measure temperature on the stern. The POPA (Portuguese Fisheries Department) data dream team, Annabel and Chris, now excel in keeping their heads cool while multitasking to record everything simultaneously from trash, turtles, seabirds, cetaceans and more.
When the working day is over, it is time for a break. Anne, a Biosphere returnee for the last 7 years, introduced the ‘after whale-watching drink’ at Peter’s (the infamous harbour pub), supposedly for ‘a German coffee’. By now the whole group has embraced the concept resulting in cosy and tasty debriefing sessions.
As the sea conditions in the following days go into the red, we will be focusing on data analysis onshore and exploring what the island of Faial has to offer. Stay tuned for more!
Cetaceans are the stuff of myths, legends and dreams. But how do you make your dreams come true? Well, citizen science may have the answer.
Dreams of cetaceans would have to wait, as we had our final change of personnel, welcoming Team 4 to the Azores; our final team for the 2018 expedition. We also extend the Biosphere Expeditions welcome to An Bollen, our ‘expedition leader in training’, who is assisting me for the next ten days.
With the welcomes, greetings, briefings and training sessions dealt with, we were all keen to get out to sea. Our potential survey area was restricted by the sea conditions, and these also challenged some of our team – but great job by Amy for being the last volunteer lookout standing on the front deck.
The effort was worth it – an encounter with 75 common dolphins put a smile on all faces and data in our records.
Our first full day at sea was initially met with nerves and excitement. And again emotions were soon settled with another common dolphin encounter. Word of sperm whales then came in, and the ‘hunt’ was on. We quickly located several socialising groups, but none were diving, so frustratingly, no fluke identifications photos.
Time for a change of tack; so we went in pursuit of a baleen whale, that turned out to be blue. One blue turned into two blues, which did what the sperm whales wouldn’t – fluke! And it fluked multiple times, much to the delight of all.
Feeling lucky, we decided to try the sperm whales again, after encounters with yet more common dolphins and loggerhead turtles. After following several groups for an age, only two fluked briefly. So again we went the way of the baleen whales, but this time pursued a humpback, and again it fluked – multiple times! So more ID photos recorded.
Quite a day for many in the group – with several seeing their first whales! However, on the first day we all met, Christine had stated she’d had a dream since she was child, to see a whale fluking in the wild. What she didn’t know was that citizen science would make that dream come true, and in some style, with three species fluking in one day. I told you (in my last blog) three was a lucky number!
Great day, great data and great reactions from the whole team. Their whoops and cheers are still ringing in my ears, but Christine summed it up neatly – ‘epic!’.