Life as a turtle intern
2017 Turtle Intern Team
Turtle conservation is a huge part of Ascension culture and the Marine Turtle Internship brings a new group of interns to Ascension to work on monitoring the green turtle population.
2017 has been a special season as it signifies the five year census. This means that instead of monitoring the three main nesting beaches of Long Beach, North East Bay and Pan Am, we have been tracking all 32 beaches on Ascension. This year we are a team of four who are here on the island until June lead by turtle co-ordinator Jacqui Ellick.
Who are we?
The team this year has been:
Jamie is from Herefordshire, studied Wildlife Conservation and Ecology at university and is off to Sumatra in October to film a documentary.
Charlie is from Scotland and studied Animal Behaviour and Welfare. He has a lot of previous conservation experience working with penguins in South Africa and Dolphins and Whales in Scotland.
Hayden is a photography graduate who has moved into turtle conservation, previously working for other projects with Leatherback turtles in the Caribbean. She hopes to continue working with turtles on other projects.
Katie is from Nottingham and studied Zoology. She is continuing on the island until September on all conservation projects both in the field, up the mountain, seabird monitoring and in the office.
What is the point behind raking?
Raking clears the tracks from the previous night(s) and so leaves the beach as a blank slate. This makes it easier for us to then count the tracks that will appear that night. We always count in the morning and so can be 100% certain that all the tracks have been made by turtles that came up the night before.
Why do we count tracks and not turtles?
We can gather more accurate data from counting tracks. Imagine walking up and down Long Beach at night…would you be able to distinguish each individual turtle so you didn’t count them twice? Another reason we count the tracks is so that we cause as little disruption as possible to the female turtles that come up on the beach to lay their nests.
We also have run 31 tours this year
This year, 450 visitors have participated in a turtle tour. Visitors on tours are given the opportunity to observe nesting females, as they lay their eggs up until they have covered their nest. We have also run tours for groups of 50+ people, from the MV Plancius, Golden Lion and HMS Enterprise – multiple nesting turtles had to be found on these occasions!!
Also every morning the conservation turtle team conducts daily morning checks of known turtle-stranding hotspots, including Catherine Point and Collier Point. Nesting females can become trapped in the rocks, and if stuck for long enough can dehydrate as the day gets hotter. To date, this season we have returned 196 turtles to sea since the beginning of 2017.
As part of our turtle conservation research, we deploy data loggers into the nests of turtles to monitor the temperature. We do this by watching the turtle dig her nest, and as the eggs are laid we drop the logger right into the middle of it! The turtle will then do the rest of the work by covering up the logger and burying it with all the eggs she has laid to complete the nest. Turtles lay on average 120 eggs per nest, and the gender of the hatchlings inside is determined largely by the temperature of the nest within the sand – If the temperature is above 28.5°C the hatchlings will be mostly female, and if the temperature is below 28.5°C they will be mostly male! By monitoring the temperature of the nests laid around Ascension, we can make informed guesses about what the male to female ratio is of the turtles born on each of our beaches.
The next part of the puzzle is working out just how many baby turtles successfully hatch on Ascension. To do this, we mark each of the nests containing buried temperature loggers with numbered posts. After at least 40 days, as long as it should have taken for the eggs to hatch, we return to the nests and dig up the remains! This is what we call a nest excavation. As we dig up the nest, we count the total number of empty egg shells we find to give us an idea of the number of hatchlings that have emerged. We also count the number of unfertilised eggs, and the number of fertilised eggs which did not survive long enough for hatchlings to emerge.