Tracking our turtles

A turtle tagged with the help of Cayman’s Department of Environment staff in the Dominican Republic is on the move and being tracked as part of a Caribbean-wide project to monitor turtle migration.

Tracking Turtles

Pelagio Paulino, aka “El Negro”, (left) after whom Paulina is named, with Janice Blumenthal and two of his neighbours on Saona Island, tag the turtle of 11 August.

The hawksbill turtle, named Paulina, was tagged after she was found nesting in a remote beach in the south-eastern corner of Saona island.

DoE research officer Janice Blumenthal visited the Dominican Republic in August to demonstrate the satellite transmitter attachment technique used by the department in the Cayman Islands which has been used to monitor the migration of 11 turtles which had nested in Cayman.

She said Paulina was the first hawksbill to be satellite tagged in the Dominican Republic as part of a project run by the World Wildlife Fund, the Marine Turtle Research Group, and the Grupo Jaragua Project, Dominican Republic.

‘Every night, we patrolled remote beaches in the Dominican Republic looking for nesting turtles – until we found Paulina,’ said Ms. Blumenthal.

‘Before she returned to the sea, we trapped her in the “turtle box” – a wooden corral used to hold her while we apply the satellite transmitter. We cleaned her carapace (top shell) to remove barnacles and then used a waterproof epoxy to attach the transmitter.’

The transmitter sends information on the turtle’s location whenever she surfaces to breathe.

By Wednesday morning, the satellite tracking map showed Paulina had travelled 1,098 kilometres since her release just over seven weeks and heading southwest in the direction of the coast of Central America.

Hawksbill turtles nest on Caribbean beaches – including the Dominican Republic. At the end of the summer nesting season, they migrate to coral reef feeding grounds in other countries, where they live for the rest of the year.

Ms. Blumenthal said that satellite tracking was the only way to follow the turtles’ migrations though the open ocean to areas where they spend most of their adult lives.

Paulina was named after fisherman Pelagio Paulino, also known as “El Negro”, a resident of Mano Juan, Saona who has worked at the Saona turtle project since 2005.

Mr. Paulino, who has enlisted the help of his family and neighbours to help with turtle conservation, conducts nesting and in-water surveys in Saona, and managed a hatchery to reduce egg poaching.

Once Paulina’s eggs hatch, her hatchlings will race into the surf, swim offshore for several days before drifting along the ocean currents for more than a year. They will then move to a coral reef somewhere in the Caribbean.

Ms. Blumenthal said hawksbills are connected by giant migrations and may be affected by changing climates and the loss of coral reefs.

‘The purpose of this collaborative project is to track the migrations of highly migratory hawksbills, and find out about how climate change may affect Caribbean hawksbill populations,’ she said.

The Dominican Republic plans to tag and track a total of 10 turtles, with five turtles tagged so far this summer.

The DoE in Cayman used the same technique to attach satellite transmitters to eight green turtles and three loggerheads in the Cayman Islands between 2003 and 2006. Those transmitters have by now stopped transmitting, but enabled the DoE to find out where endangered Cayman turtles live when they are not nesting, highlighting a need for international cooperation in marine turtle management.

A May 2006 satellite map shows those turtles migrating towards the coasts of Mexico and Central America, as well as one moving north towards the Florida Keys,