Hola from Culebra!
5:30 came bright and early for our group of student as we awoke to a mixture of roosters crowing and gentle knocks on our doors by our two professors. Our first task for the day was to head out and look for any signs of new nests on Resaca and Brava Beach. For today’s turtle patrol I was placed in Prof. Kelly Stewart’s Resaca monitoring group. As we walked along the dawn basked beach we kept our eyes peeled for leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) tracks and any signs of possible nesting locations.
Sadly we didn’t find any new nests but, we did stop along the way to observe a marked nest and learn about the process of leatherback turtle nesting. The turtles have a very methodic and gear-like procedure once they surface on a beach to lay their eggs. After scouting the beach visually and testing the sand density, the female leatherback will use her front flippers to push mounds of sand back and behind her body. This motion combined with a swishing of her large carapace allows the turtle to climb up the beach. Once she locates an ideal location she will then dig a body pit for the eggs. The next steps include laying the eggs, covering and camouflaging the nest, and finally circling around and heading back into the salty ocean waters.
Once we had completed our beach survey and headed back to the house to eat breakfast and pack lunch, we headed down to the dock to meet Dr. Carlos Diez. Dr. Diez is our point man and host during our time in Puerto Rico and will be allowing us to assist him with some in-water green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) surveys and studies for the DRNA. I can only speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one practically bouncing with excitement and anticipation. After a brief introduction and description of our duties for the day we sped off in our boats to Culebrita’s Turtle Bay to begin our work. The first step of the process was to lay a wide net out in a half-moon shape near the mouth of the Bay. Once it was set by Carlos and his team, we all jumped in with our snorkel gear and swam up and down the net keeping an eye out for any entangled turtles. As luck would have it we found one almost right off the bat and we quickly untangled its body and passed it to the team on the capture boat. We spent the next hour or so repeating this action and then also resetting and swimming the net at the other side of the bay. In total we were able to catch seven beautiful juvenile green turtles! Once they were all snug and watered on the boat we began to process them. The procedure for captured turtles in this case entailed a multitude of steps including: measuring carapace length, tail length, scanning for PIT tags, looking for and recording any form of tag present on the individual, body weight, photo ID, and tagging the front flipper with Inconel tags.
We all got to try the different steps and learn why and how they are recorded. Once all the processing was completed the turtles were released back into the bay and we had officially completed our first round of net-assisted turtle capturing!
We ended our day with two guest lectures by Carlos and his colleague Eduardo who taught us about the research and outreach the DRNA is doing with sea turtles and the impact of invasive rats on local wildlife, respectively. The lectures were a great way to gain background information on the history of sea turtle research as well as tying it into what scientists are doing currently. One area that particularly stood out to me was the importance of outreach and community education in the conservation of sea turtles. As future scientists I think that finding ways to join together researchers and locals will be imperative. The day was exhausting but wonderful and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for us this week!