Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/costarica)

One in a thousand

Leatherback turtles frequent much of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica during the months of February and July to lay their eggs. One egg has a market value of $2 and one turtle can lay a clutch of up to 100 eggs. For poachers this is a significant income and poaching is rife on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. But without eggs hatching, the species will disappear. This is where Biosphere Expeditions and its partnership with LAST (Latin American Sea Turtles) comes in.

Our joint mission is to patrol the beach on a nightly basis and relocate as many clutches of eggs to a guarded hatchery as possible, thus preventing the poachers from taking all the eggs. For this a whole host of trained “foot soldiers” (Biosphere Expeditions team members) is need to monitor the beach, catch a turtle before she lays, wait as she digs her nest, then catch the falling eggs in a large plastic bag and whip them out from beneath her before she starts to fill in the nest and camouflage her tracks. Biometric data are also taken, and the nest re-dug by hand by the team member on duty in the hatchery. The nest, now safely in the hatchery, is guarded 24 hours a day for the next 60-70 days until the hatchlings emerge.

Magali Marion MSc is the lead scientist at Pacuare Research Centre. For the past three years she has worked tirelessly training volunteers, delivering lectures, leading night patrols, working with the local community and generally acting as the perfect role model for a successful conservation programme. “The key problem,” she says, “is that this is a public beach, so we have no control over who comes onto it.” The weekends are the worst with a noticeable increase of poachers lurking in the undergrowth. “Foot soldiers are really important,” says Magali, “as their number determines the amount of patrols we can run.”

“I’m amazed at myself and the energy this project unleashed in me!” says Janet Hoffberg a 76 year-old passionate animal advocate from Florida. The reward? To spot a turtle before the poachers and safely deposit the eggs in the hatchery. But, as Theresa Bowman, aged 43 from Germany, points out, “it’s not all black and white – we are used to the poachers being the ‘evil ones’, but there is more to it.”

This is a complicated issue and Magali has put herself right in the middle of it, working with the local association (La Asociacion para el Ambiente de Nuevo Pacuare) to offer poachers the chance to become guides for the project. There are ground rules – no alcohol or drug consumption, no more poaching, a willingness to learn and work with volunteers from around the globe. Some pass the test, some fail, but the beauty of Magali’s strategy is that whichever camp you fall into, there must be no confrontation between poachers and patrols. “Our mission is long-term. We will not eradicate poaching from Pacuare in the next year, but we believe that by providing alternative livelihoods to the community and involving children, we will change their mindset so they understand that natural resources must be exploited in a sustainable way. It involves long hours of talking and exchanging with different people without judging them. When we get to understand what is the social reason that pushes people to poach, then we can get to the root of the problem, which in Pacuare is geographical isolation, low education and poor job opportunity.”

As rainy season sets in a second threat to the turtle population is revealed – erosion. With constant storms raging out at sea, the high tides flood the beach, reducing the availability of viable leatherback nesting sites. Cyclical erosion has always occurred on this coastline, but with the added pressure of climate change, this erosion is becoming more extreme. “Nesting grounds are degraded by erosion”, says Magali, and this year’s El Nino event has been very intense, which is now leading to an equally intense rainy season. We have reinforced the hatchery, so that it will not be eroded by the waves, but if the water table gets too high, the nests can be flooded from below.”

So what does the expedition mean in conservation terms? 15 clutches of eggs safely relocated to the hatchery; clutches, which if left in their natural condition would have either been poached or washed out to sea. This amounts to over 1000 potential hatchlings, and based on statistical probability, that is one adult who against all the odds will return in 15 years to lay her own clutch. This may not sound like much, but for a dwindling population of fewer than 4,000 leatherback turtles on the Caribbean coast, every single one counts.

Costa Rica 2016 pictures and videos

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Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/costarica)

This week it has become increasingly obvious that beach erosion is also a big problem in Pacuare. As a result of global warming more extreme weather events have been observed in the area in recent years, and due to current storms in the Caribbean we have seen very high tides and strong wave action eating away the beach from under our feet. This has also impacted the number of nesting turtles we have encountered. There have been fewer females coming out to nest at night, as there is little to no beach above the high tide line to nest on.

We did, however, encounter a turtle camouflaging her nest, that sadly had been poached, on Tuesday night. Fortunately we managed to recorded her tag numbers and get her measurements. She was an interesting turtle as her carapace was deformed and not very streamlined, and her back left flipper was missing, probably as a result of a shark attack. Only the previous day when we released a clutch of hatchlings, where a few had deformed carapaces, did we wonder if these juveniles would ever make it to adulthood. It turns out they do!

Wednesday, our last night on patrol saw more rain and therefore little turtle activity. Brad joked that, “it is like being on Survivor and preparing for a marathon each night!” But morale was still high. “Camaraderie doesn’t happen unless you’re doing something challenging”, said Janet from the UK. It certainly has been a challenging, but also a very rewarding time for the team, and turtles alike, but as the expedition draws to a close another nest emerges – 34 writhing hatchlings ready to begin their adventures at sea.

So with a joyous farewell dinner, with cake from Magali, candelabras by Theresa, and Scottish folk songs from Gordon, it is time to leave our rustic abode, and return to whence we came. We will not forget our experiences here in Pacuare and it has been an fruitful inaugural expedition for Biosphere Expeditions, with a total of 15 nests recovered and relocated in the hatchery. That’s over 1000 potential hatchlings! Thank you team for all your hard work in making this a reality. Many thanks also to our project partners LAST and especially to Magali for her knowledge, skills and dedication in the field – it was a pleasure working with you. A big thanks also to all the staff on site, to Silvia our cook, to the research assistants, to Pablo and especially the local guides, Mauricio, Carlos, Nene, Hernan and Steven who led us to the turtles each night. The poaching issue, although far from being resolved, is under the watchful eye of LAST and the Environmental Association of Nuevo Pacuare, and we look forward to continuing our relationship next year on another expedition.


Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Update from our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores)

Longest-known sperm whale match recorded during the Biosphere Expeditions Azores project. Male sperm whale returns to the “scene of the crime”

Biosphere Expeditions, now in its 13th year of collaboration with marine biologist Lisa Steiner, observed a sperm whale 29 years after she was first seen swimming in the Azores. Nº19, as she is known, was first observed as an adult in 1987. This is the longest recorded re-sighting of a sperm whale anywhere on the planet. Nº19 was observed ten times (three times during an expedition) over at least half of her life, since sperm whales live for 60-70 years.

The expedition also had an unbelievable sighting, a real “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” moment. A male sperm whale seen on 20 April 2016 was re-sighted in almost exactly the same position and at the same time as it was on 20 April 2009, seven years to the day and hour previously.

Also sighted during the 2016 expedition were a couple of blue whales that had been seen previously, one in 2006 & 2013 and the other from 2010.

This long-term research is showing that these ocean giants utilise the same migration corridor year after year. Three different humpback whales recorded during the expedition have also been observed on the breeding grounds in the Cape Verde Islands. The Azores is a “snack stop” on their way back to the Norwegian or Icelandic feeding grounds.

All of these data are collected using citizen scientists that come from all walks of life who may have never seen a whale before. Without them, this valuable information would not be collected.

Lisa Steiner says that “Photo-ID projects take time to bear fruit and it’s great that Biosphere Expeditions is in for the long haul. We are starting to generate some amazing results from our efforts. Inter-annual matches of these migrating giants shows that they tend to migrate along the same corridors year after year. Matching some of these animals to breeding grounds or feeding grounds gives us clues as to how whales are split into separate stocks. And the icing on the cake, for me, is identifying a sperm whale 10 times over the last 29 years; that is absolutely incredible.”

Photo archive of the 2016 expedition:


Update from our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/costarica)

Our second expedition team have arrived, been trained in patrol and hatchery methodology, with Janet digging the “perfect leatherback nest.” In the hope of washing off the post nest-digging sand, most of us dived straight into the ocean. The ocean had other ideas, however, and tumbled us around in the surf, spitting us out with more sand in our clothes than before we had entered!

The first night proved a fruitful patrol for Magali’s team – as they encountered a smallish (141 cm carapace length), young turtle, bearing no tags. She took a very long time to drop her first eggs and then only laid 59, which is quite a small clutch for a leatherback. Holly from the UK who was given the task of collecting the eggs, said afterwards, “Being a new mum myself, I could relate to her not really knowing what she’s doing!”

Sunday night, the new moon, which had so delighted us with its light, enabling us to finally see where we were going, suddenly became obscured by dark, black clouds, which duly opened upon us. Then a nesting turtle suddenly appeared for Catherine, Carol, Terry and Janet, and it was action stations! The turtle was already laying and we peeped into the nest to see a clutch of glistening eggs. Oscar, our guide, quickly tried to excavate as many eggs as possible, but she was nearing the end, so he deftly inserted one end of a long measuring tape into the nest and waited until she had finished covering up and moving off, before unearthing the eggs – there’s no way a human can compete with the power of a leatherback’s flippers, so this was the best option. After rescuing Terry’s glasses from a near burial, we took the data and brought the eggs to the hatchery, which fortunately for us, was only two minutes away.

Other patrols witnessed two poaching events, and it seems that our thief (from last week) is still at large, as whilst taking a pee in the bushes, one of the poacher’s own egg bags was swiped! “Now that’s Karma!”, said Ida.

On Monday loud knocks woke us up at 21:30. There were initial grumbles at being woken up during our pre-midnight patrol nap. But as the word “hatchlings” were uttered we all got out of bed, bushy-tailed and bright-eyed. There was a clutch of twenty-five baby leatherback turtles ready to head for the ocean. We all observed them being measured and weighed before finally making their last mad dash for the sea. During the night a few more emerged and by the morning Theresa, who was on early morning hatchery shift, released the last lost little wanderer on to the beach.

Tuesday afternoon Magali excavated the nest and another nine turtles were dug out from the bottom of the nest. Everyone released a turtle, cheering them on as they crossed the beach. Dustin was up for hatchery duty next and just as we were all about to leave, he noted a few little heads starting to poke out of one of the nests. “I had just started my shift,” exclaimed Dustin. A couple of hours later as Theresa and Janet were about to take over hatchery duty, fifty-nine hatchlings had emerged and they measureed, weighed, and then finally released the little ones. What a night!


Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/costarica)

As we enter the darkest phase of the moon, the turtle activity seems to have declined slightly. However, due to our recent reporting of the poacher’s breach of agreement and subsequent egg theft, the presence of coast guards on the beach at night has risen from zero to four. As if to justify their presence even further, they were the ones to discover the only two nests that have been taken to the hatchery in the past couple of days! Hopefully this will inspire them to stick around, as their dedication is greatly needed.

For expedition team 1, the week in Pacuare is drawing to a close and instead of our usual afternoon beach duties, clearing the plethora of plastic from this remote coastline, and removing the logs which not only trip us up in the dark, but more importantly, may deter a cautious turtle from nesting, we opted for a locally-run wildlife tour instead. Our guide, Freddy, had an extremely keen eye, and alerted us to troupes of spider monkeys performing their aerial acrobatics in the high branches, miniscule bats lined up on a dead log asleep, lazy sloths and crimson poison dart frogs. A wonderful way to end an extremely experience-rich week.

Thank you team 1 for all your very hard work, day and night, for your diligence, your enthusiasm and all your wonderful feedback. During this expedition, we witnessed 24 false crawls, (this is when a turtle emerges from the sea, but does not dig a nest or lay any eggs), took 10 clutches of leatherback eggs to the hatchery for their protection, (a total of 760 eggs) and released 90 hatchlings into the sea. This is an excellent achievement. Unfortunately the poachers took a further 13 clutches of eggs despite our relentless patrolling, which brings the reality of the situation home. This is an area where only hands-on conservation work can make a difference – thank you for all your efforts, and we look forward to welcoming the second team in a few days time to continue what you have started.


Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/costarica)

Yesterday afternoon, as we were all out for a beach cleanup, we spotted Pablo running up the beach. “Babies!”, he called out as he got closer. The first lot of hatchlings for the season had just started to emerge out of their nest. We headed for the hatchery where two rather sleepy baby leatherback turtles had crawled out of their nest and a third one was poking its head out of the sand. It wasn’t until later at night, however, that the full nest started to emerge. At around 18:30, 24 baby turtles were busy flapping their flippers around. We all gathered at the hatchery and took turns helping out, weighing and measuring a subsample of 15 of the 24 hatchlings before it was time to release them all on the beach and watch them head for sea. Their jerky movements made them look like wound-up toys!

A couple of hours later a second, much larger, nest emerged and Alan, Janet and Ida, who were on hatchery duty, processed another 63 baby turtles. Just when we thought things had calmed down, three turtles poked their heads out of a third nest whilst Carol was on the early morning shift. But as a result of the hot daytime sun, the hatchlings in the third nest stopped emerging, instead waiting for cooler nighttime temperatures. We processed and released the three that had already emerged and watched them struggle to the sea (the process of letting them crawl over the beach is essential for imprinting the beach’s location into their brains). “It makes all the hard work worthwhile,” exclaimed Carol.

In the afternoon Magali excavated the two nests that had fully hatched. There were a couple of stragglers at the bottom that were released and all the hatched and unhatched eggs were removed and examined individually and their stage of development recorded. Then all were buried deep in the sand to avoid attracting predators.

Now we are all waiting for the third nest to fully emerge.


Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/costarica)

The team are acclimatising to the heat and the night-time schedule. It’s always a treat when you meet a turtle in full swing, just minutes after leaving the research base, as happened to the first patrol the other night. The eggs were collected and taken to the hatchery where Carol and Sheila, battling with the biblical plague of crabs heading on land, also to lay their eggs, duly dug the chamber and relocated the clutch.

On the way back down the beach another turtle was discovered, demonstrating signs of camouflaging her nest, meaning that she had already laid, and was preparing to head back to sea. There were no signs of poaching activity, no sticks in the sand, no bare-foot prints, so the team, Irmtraut, Nicole and Catherine, attempted to dig up the eggs, but to no avail. As Irmtraut rightly said, “It’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack!”

The next morning, we decided to enlist the help of Hernan, a once poacher, now guide with LAST, and for 30 minutes he poked around with a metal rod trying to find the nest. It was obvious that even for the professionals, this was not an easy job! The turtle had camouflaged her nest so well that we thought it was a lost cause until suddenly the rod went down with ease. He dug furiously until there they were, a cavern of white spheres.

Hernan finding the nest
Hernan finding the nest

Elated, Magali extracted the nest and then Janet and Ida helped to relocate it into the hatchery. It was a great sense of achievement, not only to have evaded the poachers, but to know that the nest is now safe from the elements too.

Magali extracting the eggs
Magali extracting the eggs
Janet placing the eggs into a nest in the hatchery
Janet placing the eggs into a nest in the hatchery
Bagged eggs
Bagged eggs

However, last night the poachers broke the unwritten code of conduct for the first time since its inception a few years ago. The agreement is basically peaceful coexistance and that whoever gets to a turtle first has the “rights” over the nest. Last night a team were with a turtle who was laying facing the sea. They collected the eggs and placed them in their bag a metre or so away, whilst they took the rest of the data. Suddenly, Jenny heard the crack of a branch and when she turned around, a shadowy figure disappeared into the night with the egg bag! We were all obviously shocked to hear of such a breach, and a formal complaint will be lodged with the coast guard and the police. Magali is confident, though, that the name of the poacher will come out amongst the community (which only numbers 35 people) within a couple of days, and that community will take appropriate action for fear of creating a rift between themselves and LAST – no one, not even the poachers want to disrupt the current system of tolerance.

You may ask why we do not report poachers every time and why this tolerance. The answer is simple. There is no or very little law enforcement in this area, so it’s just us and the community, some of whom are poachers. The alternative to peaceful tolerance would be aggressive squabbling, which would get us nowhere fast. Without the cooperation of the community, we would have no chance to change hearts and minds away from a poaching culture. And agressive confrontation on pitch dark beaches in the middle of the night is not what we want either, nor are the poachers “bad” people. In this community of severe poverty, little education, few opportunities and some alcohol and drug-related problems too, our “poaching” may be their subsistance. We accept this and work hard to turn poachers into patrol leaders and provide alternative means of income, such as employing people from the community as patrol leaders, cooks, service providers or encouraging them to grow food that can be sold to the research station or making souvenirs for volunteers. Without us, poaching would be 100%. With us around it is between 60% and 35%, depending on the year. It’s a long game and, with the help of our volunteers, we’re in for the long haul, not futile, short-lived fights on the beaches.


Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/costarica)

More impressions from our Costa Rica turtle expedition (courtesy of Ida Vincent):

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Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Update from our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores)

Photo archive of the 2016 expedition:


Update from our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago

Update from our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/azores)

You may have thought we had sunk without a trace, but fear not, we are back after a brief radio silence on the blog front. And what a final few days it has been to conclude the 13th year for Biosphere Expeditions in the Azores.

I am not superstitious, but our third group of volunteers seem to have had luck on their side. After the double blue whales from the first day at sea, they scored humpback whales on day two – our first records of this species for 2016. One of the three humpbacks recorded was first identified in the Azores on March 8th of this year, so it has been hanging around for a while, but just playing hard to find.

Our next day brought another epic encounter with sperm whales, this time south of Faial, and no sooner did one fluke and disappear to the depths, another appeared to the chorus of ‘blow’. The photos identified at least 14 different individuals, including one of Lisa’s favourites; whale number 19. This female was first recorded in 1987 and has now been identified at least 10 times in the Azores over the past 29 years, underlining the great value of long-term data sets in illustrating the importance of the Azores for certain cetacean species.

The afternoon brought more encounters with bottlenose dolphins, who were also observed ‘hassling’ the sperm whales at the surface. The latter responded in there own aromatic way, and inhaling the smell of whale pooh is perhaps something none of us are keen to repeat!

After a day’s break on shore we returned to the seas, and this was just another ‘ordinary’ day, if such a thing exists, of only baleen whales. It does give me the chance to highlight some of our other survey targets, which I have hardly had chance to mention – the seabirds and turtles. And let me not forget our close encounters with sunfish and sharks circling the boat – not every fin we see belongs to a cetacean! All contribute to clarify the ‘health’ of these waters.

Our fifth day brought diversity, and a magnificent seven cetacean species, with multiple encounters with fin and blue whales, social sperm whales that just wouldn’t show their flukes, and a chance discovery of yet another humpback whale. Common, bottlenose and striped dolphins also featured, but attempts to get to a group of false killer whales were thwarted by too many random encounters with baleen whales – yes we got stuck in traffic, whale traffic!

Our last day at sea for 2016 saw us head north out of the harbour, for the first time this year. Sometimes it pays to do something different. Not only did we find more fin whales, and one with a calf that circled the boat, we also observed five different species of dolphins in one day including striped (for a fifth day) and the false killer whales that had evaded us earlier. Personally speaking, it is great to achieve something new and unexpected, and a fine way to end our fieldwork for 2016.

I hoped the variety of sightings would match the diversity of our group, and we weren’t disappointed. I haven’t even had chance to tell you about fluking blue whales, breaching humpbacks and the jumping acrobatics of the striped dolphins. Another time…..

But let me say huge thanks to our hosts at Banana Manor (Jim, Claudia and Tiago), to our skipper (Gyro) and the support team at Norberto Divers, and of course to Lisa for all her scientific input, direction and all-round cetacean knowledge that guides the project. Final thanks of course go to all our hard-working volunteers.

Your collective efforts have enabled a staggering level of data collection. Which will of course be analysed and published in the expedition report. But in summary, we have recorded (at least) 10 different cetacean species, from over 220 encounters, recording in excess of 1500 ‘individuals’. Not bad for a month’s work.

What are you doing next April?

Until next time

Craig


Update from our volunteer vacation / conservation holiday protecting whales, dolphins and turtles around the Azores archipelago