DoE staff off to turtle symposium

Two Department of Environment representatives, Janice Blumenthal and Joni Solomon, have headed off to Savannah, Georgia to attend the 25th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Conservation and Biology this week.

At the symposium, which runs from Monday through Saturday, Ms Blumenthal will provide a poster presentation titled ‘Insights into movements of Caribbean Green and Loggerhead Turtles Tracked by Satellite from the Cayman Islands.’

The presentation, which was put together by a team of people at the Department of Environment that included Ms Blumenthal, Ms Solomon, former Director of Special Projects Catherine Bell and others, will deal with some of the things learned during the tracking of five feral turtles, which were fitted with satellite tracking devices while in Cayman to nest.

The satellite tracking project is a collaborative effort between the Cayman Islands Department of Environment and the Marine Turtle Research Group, which are based out of the University of Exeter in the UK. One of its main purposes is to learn about the migratory patterns of sea turtles.

The five turtles, dubbed Ambassador, Sparky, Shelby, Leonie and Greenie by their sponsoring organizations, are now all at their foraging grounds west or south of Grand Cayman.

The case of Shelby provides interesting insights into turtles. Usually, turtles only return to their nesting grounds once every three to five years, Ms Solomon said.

However, Shelby, a female green turtle who was first fitted with a satellite tracking device while nesting in 2003, came back again in 2004. Ms Solomon said it is rare, but not unheard of for a turtle to nest two years in a row.

Turtles always return to the same stretch of beach to nest.

When Shelby returned, she had lost her tracking device, which was glued onto her with a special non-heat-producing epoxy, but was identifiable by a small metal tag that had been attached to her flipper.

On her return, Shelby was refitted with another satellite transmitter, allowing the researchers to track her for two consecutive years.

Ms Blumenthal said that tracking her for two years allowed researchers to understand more about the turtle’s migration after nesting. ‘We weren’t sure if they returned to the same foraging place or not.

In Shelby’s case, she did. ‘She went back to the same place,’ said Ms Blumenthal, ‘She took a different path to get there, but returned to within a quarter of a mile of where she had been the year before.’

The satellite can track the turtles only when they come up to breath, so the signals are intermittent. The last signal received from Shelby was in early November. Ms Blumenthal said she wasn’t too concerned about the lack of signal, but that it probably means the transmitter had fallen off.

‘We don’t want the transmitters to stay on too long because they probably do create some drag in the water for the turtles,’ she said. ‘Shelby’s good at scraping off the transmitter – she did that in 2003 – so that’s probably what happened. We’d usually know if she’d been caught because we would get continuous signal from the transmitter, which would mean she was out of the water.’

As of now, three green turtles and two loggerheads are being tracked that nest in Cayman. The researchers hope that two other species that have nested here before, the critically endangered hawksbills and leatherbacks, will return this year so that they can be tracked as well.

Leatherback turtles have not been seen officially for 10 years, but some fishermen in East End have reported seeing them more recently, Ms Solomon said.

Prospects for finding a hawksbill turtle are even less. ‘Hawksbill turtles are very rare in Cayman now,’ said Ms Solomon. ‘We haven’t found one in many years. It would be fabulous if we found one this year.’

Although similar satellite tracking programmes are being conducted in other places of the world, Ms Blumenthal says the programme in Cayman is unique in the way it has engaged the community from a sponsorship standpoint.

Each of the five turtles has a local sponsor. The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and Jacques Scott have sponsored turtles, as have Ocean Frontiers and St. Ignatius High School.

The Brac District Committee and the Cayman Islands National Trust sponsored Sparky, the first turtle fitted with a satellite transmitter in Cayman Brac, and school students from that island held fundraisers to pay for that transmitter.

Sponsors can track the turtles along with the researchers by going to www.seaturtle.com or by signing up for email tracking alerts.

Ms Blumenthal said she checks on the location of the turtles nearly every day even though they do not travel much once they have arrived at their foraging grounds.

Private citizens can also support the programme by adopting one of the turtles, which costs between $25 and $100 depending on which adoption package is chosen, Ms. Blumenthal said.

The number of turtles the project fits with transmitters this year will depend on the sponsorship fundraising, which needs to be in place before the May through October nesting season begins, Ms Blumenthal said.

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