Turtle nest research volunteers needed

TOPTurtlenestvolunteersLEAD

Early every morning at beaches
throughout Cayman between May and October, a small but dedicated group of
people walk along the waterfront, looking for sometimes almost indiscernible
tracks and holes in the sand.

These are Department of Environment
volunteers who have agreed to help keep track of and keep safe the nests built
by Cayman’s endangered wild turtle population.

Volunteer Gary Redfern patrols one
section of Seven Mile Beach regularly, noting whether tracks in the sand belong
to a green sea turtle or a loggerhead and if those tracks lead to a nest.

On one morning last week, Mr.
Redfern spotted what were likely to be six nests and made 15 sightings of
tracks and possible nests.

“Sometimes you see so many, it’s
hard to keep track, so I put the details of each one on my Blackberry and email
it to Janice [Blumenthal, a research officer at the Department of
Environment],” he said.

He pointed out one possible nest
and another nearby, saying one was likely a false nest – or rather, a false
start. Sometimes a turtle will drag herself out of the sea, find a spot and
start digging an egg chamber. She does this with her back fins, creating a
crater in the ground in which she will lay her eggs.

“She may not lay the eggs there
though, for some reason,” Mr. Redfern said, because she may decide the
conditions are not right, or she might be disturbed by someone passing by or
noise.

Once she finds a more suitable area,
usually nearby, in which she wants to lay her eggs, she begins digging again,
creates an egg chamber, lays her eggs and then uses her front fins to cover the
eggs with sand.

What a turtle considers a suitable
site for her nest is not always what one might expect. At one condo development
along Seven Mile Beach, volunteers found a sun lounger perched precariously
over a nest crater. The turtle had dug her nest under the lounger. Nearby,
another turtle had started to dig a nest in a cabana, directly under a hammock.

Once the eggs hatch, the baby
turtles can spend a couple of days digging their way out of the sand, depending
on how deep their mother has dug the nest. “They work together to dig their way
out. The baby turtle on top digs up, and pushes the sand back on top of the
turtles behind him. They dig as a group,” Mr. Redfern said.

After receiving the locations of
possible nests from Mr. Redfern or other volunteers, Ms Blumenthal visits each
site to determine whether there are eggs in the nests.

If she finds eggs, she then checks
one of them to see how recently they have been laid. This helps to figure out
when the baby turtles will hatch and begin digging their way out of the sand to
try to make their way to the sea.

“The eggs hatch between 55 and 60
days after they’ve been laid,” said Ms Blumenthal.

Holding up one egg she had dug out
of the ground, she said: “This one is about two days old, you can tell by how
solid the colour of the egg is,” pointing to a solid white circle at the top of
the egg and the almost translucent appearance of the rest of the egg.

Ms Blumenthal is usually
accompanied by volunteers when she “processes” a nest, which involves logging
the GPS location of the nest, as well as a location identified by triangulation,
placing a marker at the site and putting a numbered plastic tag into the nest
so it is easier to keep track of each nest.

Chris Bodden, a 16-year-old Cayman
Prep student, who was on his second day as a volunteer, covered the pit left by
the turtle, while Stacie Sybersma, 20, raked over the turtle tracks and wrote
down the data of the nest location and when it was likely to have been built.

Covering the turtle tracks and
hiding the evidence that a nest exists at each site is unfortunately necessary
to protect the turtles from poachers.

“A turtle can hatch six times in
one season and usually comes back to roughly the same area where she has
already laid eggs,” Ms Blumenthal explained.

Volunteers brave torrential
rainstorms, early morning starts, sunburn and sometimes long hours of lugging
shovels and rakes from site to site, filling in craters and raking sand, but
those who do volunteer say it’s worth it to play a role in protecting the
Islands’ turtle population.

Mr. Bodden said a keen interest in
marine life, and growing boredom during the summer holidays prompted him to
volunteer to help the Department of Environment protect the Islands’ baby
turtles. Ms Sybersma has been interested in the department’s work since she
interned there in 2006 while at Cayman Prep.

The volunteers also say it’s a
novel way of keeping fit.

With the help of Mr. Redfern, Mr.
Bodden, Ms Sybersma and other volunteers this summer, the Department of
Environment has logged 114 nests on Cayman’s beaches so far this year.

Ms Blumenthal said about 40 turtles
had laid eggs in Cayman this year, the largest number recorded since the DoE
began its turtle nest monitoring programme in 1998.

All nests found this year have been
built by loggerhead or green sea turtles. Leatherback and hawksbill turtles
used to nest in Cayman, but have not nested locally for years.

The Department of Environment is
appealing for more volunteers to help them keep track of turtle nests in
Cayman. Anyone interested in spending their mornings on the beach and helping
Cayman’s wild turtle population at the same time should email [email protected] or
call 949-8469.

TOPTurtlenestvolunteersSTORY

DoE turtle nest volunteers Stacie Sybersma and Chris Bodden fill in a turtle nest pit.
Photo: Norma Connolly
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