Many people were surprised that I wanted to try to work with leatherback turtles in Nova Scotia. In fact, most people (myself included) didn’t even know that sea turtles occurred in Canadian waters. My goal from day one was to try something no one had done before – catch and study free-swimming leatherbacks in the open ocean, and, in the process, gather information that would help recover this threatened species.
Lucky for me, I found some interested fishermen with the ingenuity to help me achieve my goal. Now, 10 years later, our team – the Canadian Sea Turtle Network – has helped increase the scientific knowledge and public awareness of leatherback turtles in Nova Scotia.
Leatherbacks’ journeys from Canada to the Caribbean speak not just of their phenomenal biology, but also of those of us anxiously awaiting their arrival on either end: different research groups that work together, across an ocean, across cultures, across languages.
In Canada, when the waters warm in June and July, we start looking for leatherbacks. The commercial fishermen who volunteer to help our group call us when they see leatherbacks at sea, so we are also glued to the toll-free turtle-hotline in case it should ring.
The turtles you’ll be following in the Race were swimming past Halifax during the past summer, 2008. As in our typical field research days, we left for the commercial fishing boat on which we do our research, at about 4 a.m. The water is usually calmest in the early morning, making the turtles easier to spot. While the boat’s owner and captain steers, the rest of us hop on top of the boat for a better view, and start the hours and hours of trying to find solitary turtles in a vast sea.
The trick is not just finding turtles, which are often at the surface catching their breath for only a second or two. The real challenge is finding them in a seemingly constant dense fog, which wrapped tightly around the boat most days last summer and cut visibility almost completely. Sometimes it would lift for a few hours, or, on rare occasions completely late in the day, giving us relief from the mind-numbingly featureless whiteness.
When we find a turtle there is invariably a loud and excited shout, “TURTLE!” followed by steering directions yelled down to the captain: “100 metres—10 o’clock!” and, when the turtle dives underwater again, “It’s down! Wait for it!” Then the search begins for the spot where, five to ten minutes later, the animal might pop its head out of the water—a game of hide-and-seek that can last for over an hour before either we can catch and work with a turtle, or it disappears altogether….
After catching a turtle, the most exciting moment for us is when we see a metal identification tag shimmering on the turtle’s rear flipper, or when our hand-held reader detects a microchip in the turtle’s shoulder muscle. This means that a turtle had been examined on a nesting beach somewhere, thousands of kilometers south of us, so should have a history known by one of our colleagues. One such turtle (Wawa Bear in the Race) was not only the biggest turtle we’d ever worked with, but also had nested like clockwork every two years since 1993 in French Guiana!
After turtles leave Canadian waters in the fall, they travel south to the nesting beaches, where our colleagues wait for them, just as anxiously as we do up north, combing sandy beaches through the dark hours of night in search of the hulking mass of a female leatherback hauling ashore. We send the turtles off, one research group to the other, hoping fervently that the leatherbacks will stay safe on the journey in between.
Together we’ve begun to piece together just how critical the waters of Canada are to leatherbacks from all over the Atlantic. Satellite telemetry and even the simple technology of a metal tag applied to a flipper or a microchip injected in the shoulder muscle, have helped us learn the nesting origins for some of the turtles that we see in Canada. We’ve discovered that our turtles nest in Anguilla, Colombia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Grenada, Guyana, Panama, Puerto Rico, Suriname, Trinidad, the United States and Venezuela. And other places we haven’t discovered yet.
We usually see the satellite tracks you’ll be watching during the Great Turtle Race develop slowly, over several months. We eagerly check for updates on each turtle’s position every day. And every year we watch anxiously to see if finally this year, just one leatherback might make it to the nesting beaches with its satellite tag still transmitting—something that hasn’t happened before.
As the turtles make their way south, we stay in touch with our colleagues on the nesting beaches —they wait, slogging through the humidity and fighting off biting bugs, while we wait, slogging through snow piled high outside our windows, ice pans floating in the ocean. It’s pretty amazing to think that what binds us together are giant sea turtles….