Tag Archives: hawksbill turtle

Special Turtle lays eggs – with a little help from her friends

An exhausting but successful Hawksbill turtle nesting season on Cousin Island Special Reserve was topped by the appearance of an extraordinary turtle nicknamed “Stumpy” by island residents.

The Hawksbill turtle arrived on the island devoid of her right rear flipper and part of her carapace. But in spite of her missing flipper she made several attempts at nesting, finally succeeding with the help of the turtle team to lay not one, but two nests!

Turtles use their flippers to swim in the ocean where they spend most of their time. They also use them on land.  With the front ones they crawl out of the sea and drag themselves across the beach to nesting sites, and once there, digging what is called a body pit. With the hind flippers, they excavate the pits within which eggs are laid.

She was missing her right rear flipper and part of her carapace

She was missing her right rear flipper and part of her carapace

“Her right rear flipper was missing and a chunk was taken out of her carapace, but this did not stop her natural instinct to lay,” says Kat one of  Cousin’s Turtle Team Volunteers.

“Throughout the season we encountered tagged turtles, on average, 3 times. However she attempted to lay 10 times,” she continues, describing the persistence of the turtle.

 “At first we thought she would not be able to complete the laying process because although the damaged flipper went through the motion of digging an egg chamber, no sand was shifted. But with help from us, scooping sand out of the way, she managed to dig an egg chamber and laid her two nests.”

But with help she laid two nests

Stumpy’s flipper and the carapace is suspected to have been chomped off by a shark.

This is not the first time that the turtle has been spotted on the island. Female turtles instinctively return to the island where they were born to nest as adults and two years ago she was spotted.

“I remember helping Stumpy to nest,” says Alec another volunteer who was on the island at the time, “Sand to the face but worth it!”

Despite a late start, this season Cousin Island experienced the highest number of nesting female hawksbill turtles in recent years.

The high numbers are obviously good news for the turtle population nesting on Cousin Island, which is one of the world’s longest running hawksbill monitoring programmes, but meant a very exhausting few months for the volunteers and wardens of Cousin Island.

“But it has been incredibly interesting for me seeing the whole lifecycle happen on Cousin Island,” says Kat. “From Sighting turtles mating in the waters around Cousin and watching females emerge to lay eggs on the island to hatchlings pouring out of their nest in their hundreds and then snorkelling and seeing juvenile turtles feeding around the island.”

 “It really brings home how important this small island in the Seychelles is for ensuring the continuation of this ancient species. I can only hope in the future there are more and more bumper years like this and the same turtles and their offspring keep returning,” she says.

Seychelles – a great place to be a turtle!

while she lays, data are collected (Herve Chelle)

Turtle program on Cousin started in 1972 (Herve Chelle)

Last week I was on Cousin Island Special Reserve, with a group of visitors on a guided tour of the island. On the beach we watched as a hawksbill turtle made its short journey back to the sea from laying her eggs. Laborious on land, but effortless in the sea, the hawksbill turtle lays more than 100 eggs into a small pit dug in the sand.

The Seychelles in general and Cousin Island in particular is a great place to be a turtle. Every year around this time, hundreds of female hawksbill turtles will arrive on one of our beaches to nest. The archipelago provides key nesting and feeding areas for the critically endangered hawksbill and is home to the largest remaining population in the Western Indian Ocean. This population, sea turtle experts have said recently, is among the twelve healthiest sea turtle populations globally.

A report produced by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Marine Turtle Specialist Group (MTSG) has revealed the most threatened and most healthiest of all sea turtles (there are 7 species) populations globally. It is the first comprehensive status assessment of all sea turtles. See this story here.

It shows that the hawksbill turtles populations in the Southwestern Indian Ocean (Seychelles, British and French Overseas Territories) and in Southeast Indian Ocean and Southwest Pacific Ocean (Australia) are the healthiest. But Hawksbill are threatened in the East Pacific Ocean, East Atlantic Ocean, Northeastern Indian Ocean, and West Pacific Ocean.

The report says that the most significant threats to sea turtles are fisheries bycatch, accidental catches of sea turtles by fishermen targeting other species, and the direct harvest of turtles or their eggs for food or turtle shell for commercial use. The healthiest populations are large and currently facing relatively low threats.

Hawksbill turtles were heavily exploited for many years in Seychelles, mainly for their shell. In 1994 a law that granted them complete protection was passed and harvesting was completely banned, although occasional poaching still occurs.

Turtle conservation is carried out on many islands. One of conservation’s success stories for the hawksbill turtle has been registered on Cousin Island, where a long-term monitoring programme started in 1972 is firmly established.

Turtles, Tortoises and Torti: a voluntary week on Cousin Island

The following account of Sarah Bunce’s voluntary time on Cousin Island during the turtle season appeared in Zwazo, Issue 22, which is available for free download.

I’ve just returned from a wonderful week on Cousin Island where the boat ride up onto the beach is just beginning of the rush of things to do and see as a volunteer.

As the Hawksbill sea turtle egg laying season is just peaking my friend and I were able to lend some hands to the sea turtle monitoring programme.  Cousin Island Special reserve has been collecting data about sea turtles since 1972 so Gilles-David Derand, the Nature Seychelles Science Coordinator from Mahé, showed us the ropes of this well established programme.

We had a bit of time to settle into our digs and meet the 3 students from the Seychelles Maritime School who are on Cousin for a month of work experience before their graduation; plus a volunteer from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, UK.  It was a fun group of young women living away from home for the first time and generally enjoying one another’s company.

Then it was off to find turtles on our first patrol.  As hoped, the turtles were out and about.  I had the great pleasure of watching the process from body pitting to returning to the sea.  During body pitting the turtle settled herself into the sand, under some vegetation for shade, by using her front flippers and body to create an impression of her body while clearing away the surface leaf litter.  Once she seemed comfortable, she started to dig the egg chamber.  This fascinating process involves the use of her back flippers in a highly agile and manipulative way.  She is able to create a long scoop with her flipper to dig sand from as deep as 60cm.  It looks like she scoops the sand up with one flipper dumps it and then pushes it away with the other flipper.  Alternating flippers she achieved her goal.  Between sessions of flying sand there were lovely pauses when she seemed to catch her breath and worked up her resources to recommence the dig.

flying sand as this turtle digs her chamber (Herve Chelle)

flying sand as this turtle digs her chamber (Herve Chelle)

Then, the laying began, peering down into the depths; I could see the light yellow ping pong ball size eggs dropping into the chamber.  Again there were little pauses in the process, when she would raise her head a bit and seem to take a deep breath before more eggs would drop.  After about 45 minutes she was finished with the hard part.  Now she pushed the sand over the eggs and proceeded to gently pat the mound under which her babies would incubate for the next 65 days, again with her rear flippers.  Finally, she camouflaged the mound and nest to prevent the ghost crabs or other predators from digging up the eggs for supper.  Camouflaging seemed to involve a lot of flying sand and generally stirring up the surface near the nest to spread vegetation.  She created a clear crescent with her front flippers maybe to infer the nest was located a bit further away. Read More »

The adventure begins…

the hatchlings head to sea

the hatchlings head to sea (Alison Giacomelli)

look at this guy move

look at this baby move ! (Alison Giacomelli)

After a hard days work our 2 volunteers Carrie and Alison saw these hawksbill hatchlings making their way down to the sea just after 6pm. They had probably been waiting for the sun to go down before emerging when it was a bit cooler. They a ll made their way down to the sea in a big group and with the help of the volunteers and Science Officer Mary they managed to avoid the ghost crabs who were waiting on the beach in search of a tasty meal. The hatchlings swim out to sea where they are carried off by ocean currents. The first few years of their life are known as ‘The Lost Years’ as we don’t know exactly where they go, although it is believed that they spend some time drifting on rafts of algae, feeding and growing. When they are a bit older they start coming back to inshore areas to feed. However it’s not until they reach 35-40 years that they begin breeding and we’ll see the females coming back to the beaches of Cousin. Amazingly, females find their way back to the same beach where they hatched to lay their eggs.


The turtles are back

It’s hawksbill turtle nesting season once again here on Cousin…

Female turtle coming in to nest. (Peter Chadwick)

Female turtle coming in to nest. (Peter Chadwick)

And so its tagging…

Tags are checked or applied on flippers for monitoring. (Peter Chadwick)

Tags are checked or applied on flippers for monitoring. (Peter Chadwick)

…and measuring time.

data such as size of turtle is collected (Peter Chadwick)

data such as size of turtle is collected (Peter Chadwick)

Cousin has one of the longest hawksbill turtle monitoring programme on the western Indian Ocean.  Tags applied to the turtles’ front flippers are used to identify individuals and to provide an estimate of the size of the nesting population. Other information such as the size of the turtle and tracks are also noted and the location of any nests are marked and recorded. Turtle nesting season ends in February.

Zwazo dives into the sea

Zwazo issue 20

The latest issue of Zwazo – Nature Seychelles bi-annual conservation magazine – is out! This issue that covered the period between July – December 2009 took a looking glass to the marine realm in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). We were seeking to find out what was going on with species, habitats, coral reefs, protected areas, and people. Several thought provoking articles with news and issues from this region are the result. See it and Download a copy at http://issuu.com/natureseychelles/docs/zwazoissue20

Zwazo is Creole for “Bird”.

Turtle nesting foray begins

It is that time of the year again and hawksbill turtles are making their annual pilgrimage to our shores to nest. The hawksbill breeds throughout Seychelles, peaking between mid-October and mid-January.  On Cousin Island, Conservation Officer Eric Blais reported an early appearance on August 8. Appearances are starting to pick up now and more turtles will arrive in November, December and January.

As numbers peak, so will monitoring. On a short visit to Cousin yesterday (9 Nov 2009), I took part in an afternoon monitoring exercise with Eric, David (Science Coordinator for Nature Seychelles), Mary (a volunteer helping with the turtle work) and Claire (from Kelonia) to see just what this means.

Cousin Island has one of the longest running monitoring programmes – started in 1972 – forming a core part of the wardens and volunteers work programs. Appearance dates and locations have to be recorded, with nesting beaches being patrolled several times a day. Metal tags with unique identification code, attached to the front flippers of each nesting turtle encountered help identify individual females returning to the beach each season.

Turtle emergences are recorded under four categories of behaviour: 1) “LAID” during which eggs were laid after digging one or more nests; 2) “Did Not Lay (DNL)” during which one or more nests were dug but no eggs laid; 3) “Half Moon (HM)”emergences during which digging did not occur although no disturbance factors were apparent; and 4) “Emergence Stopped by Obstacle (ESBO)” during which no digging occurred because the female was discouraged by obstacles on the beach.

After a short walk, we came across a female who had just begun to dig her pit. As I took covert pictures of her, my colleagues went about taking their data and doing their tagging. To my utter surprise Mary put her hand into the pit and with a counter in the other, began to tally the eggs as they came out.

Mary takes count

A female turtle crawls out of the sea and using her front flippers drags herself up to the beach to a suitable nest site. There, she digs a pit with her front flippers and then excavates a vertical egg chamber with her hind flippers in which she lays her eggs. Eggs can be as many as 250. Mary counted 210 eggs for this one! Afterwards, the turtle used her hind legs to cover up the nest with sand and returned to sea.

It will take close to sixty days for the eggs to hatch and two or more days for the baby turtles to get to the surface. The babies will emerge as a group and – usually at or after dusk – head towards the sea attracted by the reflection of the moon on the water. But they face a number of challenges. Once hatched, babies are a favorite food for ghost crabs, birds and fish. Baby turtles could also be affected by beach lighting, which can cause them to head inland rather than out to sea. On Cousin, lights are of low wattage and screened from all nesting beaches.

As I left Cousin, I reflected on the work ahead for these hardworking people. Things will certainly get very busy soon. But thankfully, the collection of data will be increasingly efficient due to new technology and data analysis techniques that are being introduced.