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Sea turtles

Exploring the social side of sea turtle conservation in Eleuthera

Island School student, Aissatu, interviewing a localHistorically, sea turtles were considered to be an economically and culturally important food source throughout the Caribbean. Since the discovery of the New World, sea turtle populations throughout the Caribbean have plummeted, leading to the classification of sea turtle species as endangered or critically endangered across the region. This led the Department of Marine Resources of the Bahamian Government to implement a Bahamas-wide ban on the harvesting of sea turtles in 2009.

The Sea Turtle Research Program has been in place at CEI since 2012 and has focused on the biology and ecology of green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) around South Eleuthera. This Fall, the program embarked on a brand new study focusing on the social side of sea turtle conservation with Rachel Miller, Research Assistant, and her Island School Research Class leading the charge. This project is designed to assess the gaps in knowledge between Bahamians and researchers as well as the attitudes of Bahamians towards sea turtle conservation, particularly the 2009 harvesting ban on sea turtles, through the use of a semi-structured interview.

Island School Students teach local teens about sea turtles

So far, 72 interviews have been conducted and data has been collected from 69 individuals who live in 9 different settlements across Eleuthera, plus 3 interviews from Bahamians visiting from Nassau. Preliminary data shows that of the 69 interviews from Eleuthera, 64% of interviewees (n=44) are aware of the 2009 harvesting ban on sea turtles. 96% of interviewees (n=66) have a positive reaction to sea turtle conservation, stating that it is important to protect sea turtles in The Bahamas. The Island School students will analyze and present their results during Parent's Weekend at the end of November.

The overall goal of this study is to highlight what Bahamians know about sea turtles and how they feel about sea turtles. This information can be used to create effective outreach and awareness programs throughout Eleuthera and the rest of The Bahamas.  The Sea Turtle Research program is excited to begin partnering with other organizations to continue this study on other islands and reach more communities. We thank everyone that has participated so far!

Educational Programs Team hosts Akhepran International Academy

While all visiting groups are special to us here at CEI, certain ones touch our hearts in unique and unexpected ways. Akhepran International Academy, visiting us for the first time from Nassau, was one group that made a big impact in their short time with us. Students sit on the beach to hold turtles as the research team takes their measurements

On Monday August 24, 10 students along with 2 teachers arrived from New Providence and jumped straight into the island school life. They had a jam packed day to orient them to our campus, complete with a sustainable systems tour and awesome day one snorkeling.

The rest of the week had a large emphasis on working with our IMG_5503research teams and discussing the implications of their work on our world. Lloyd Allen, head chaperone and a teacher at Akhepran, has a big vision for his scholars and hoped that in their time here they would see the plethora of career options in sciences and engineering and be inspired to pursue their passions.

Some students have dreams of being engineers. These students really enjoyed learning about our aquaponics system with Michael Bowleg and spoke excitedly about going home and engineering their own aquaponics system at home. Others dream of being marine biologists and, after a morning learning about and dissecting lionfish, want to go back to Nassau and tell everyone they know about this invasive species and get them to eat lionfish instead of more commonly overfished species.

These examples are just the beginning of this group’s studies.

Students assist researchers  studying stingrays

Their curiosity, questions, and positive approach to life made them a joy to spend the week with. By the end of the week many spoke about how their perspectives on the ocean had shifted and they had learned to love the ocean they grew up around even more. One student said, “every time a wave hits against me it’s like a kiss from mother nature” and another admitted that she had fears about the ocean, but that swimming in it and “being one with the fish” showed her she didn’t need to be so afraid.

This was truly a week of growth and inspiration, and even though their trip was cut short by threats of a hurricane, we look forward to this relationship and have hopes to visit their school in Nassau in the future.

Professor Duncan Irschick of University of Massachusetts visits CEI!

Professor Duncan Irschick, integrative biologist and innovator at the University of Massachusettes, recently visited Cape Eleuthera Institute for an exciting week of field work with the Sea Turtle Research and Conservation (STRC) team. Far from being his first visit to CEI, Prof. Irschick is working in collaboration with the STRC team on a novel project to investigate the relationship between life stage and body shape of green sea turtles; how does flipper shape and carapace (shell) shape change with age and what implications does this have on the animal’s fitness? Over the course of the year, STRC researchers have been capturing digital images of the flippers and carapace of individual green turtles as data for investigating this interesting question. Prof. Irschick takes a series of digital images of an individual green turtle for input into the 3D modelling software

The primary focus of Prof. Irschick’s visit this time, however, was to take a series of high quality digital images for each turtle that was captured during the week. With each photo in the series taken from a different angle to the turtle, Prof. Irschick is able to use a software program to create a 3D digital model of the turtle. His hopes are that with the use of 3D printing, these perfect replicates of real-life turtles can be used as an interesting and interactive educational tool. During the week, we caught a total of 11 turtles for Prof. Irschick’s 3D modelling – a very successful week!

Mid-week, the staff and visitors of CEI were treated to an evening presentation by Prof. Irschick entitled ‘Bioinspiration as a way of understanding the world’.

Prof. Irschick delivering a presentation entitled ‘Bioinspiration as a way of understanding the world

This talk gave insight into how biological form can inspire synthetic design and touched on the striking similarity between the shape of bicycle helmets and sea turtle carapaces and how, by studying the form of gecko feet, a collaboration at the University of Massachusetts was able to apply anatomical principles to create a gecko-like adhesive called GeckSkin TM. His presentation was met with a host of questions on this inspiring topic and has certainly left us looking at the form and function of organisms in a new light.

The new multinational Sea Turtle Team ready to go for the Fall!

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The Sea Turtle Research and Conservation team here at CEI welcomes three new members to the team for the fall semester! They arrived last Saturday and, after a few days of orientation, they got to finally jump on a boat and head into the field. Despite the early finish due to unpredictable weather conditions, all the interns had an amazing time getting hands-on experience in working with Meagan Gary on her Masters study by monitoring for sea turtles carrying her acoustic tags. Brittany Bradshaw (left), who had the task of listening for sea turtles, is a 21 year old college graduate from the University of the West Indies St. Augustine campus (Trinidad and Tobago), where she did her BSc. in Biology and Environmental Resource Management. Although she came from a Caribbean island, she honestly believes without a doubt that Eleuthera is the hottest place in the world! Brittany is excited to learn and will be spending her free time scuba diving and participating in projects with the other staff members at CEI.

Anna Safryghin (middle), manning the hydrophone, is a 21 year old half Italian and half Russian placement year student from Plymouth University, UK. Anna studies Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology and also plays soccer for the University team. She left the freezing Russian cold behind her to come and enjoy the hot and stunning Eleuthera. In her free time, Anna can usually be found engaging in some kind of physical activity, from water polo Wednesday to volley ball Tuesdays. During her 6 months at CEI Anna is looking forward to gaining experience in the field in all ways possible.

Last but not least, there is Jorell Pageot (right), who did a great job recording the positions of the turtles during her first field day. She is an 18 year-old, recent highschool graduate, from the not-so-far Nassau, New Providence. Jorell has been so enthusiastic about everything since her arrival. It is actually her first time on any of the family islands and so far she is "loving it"! Jorell looks forward to working with the turtle team and learning new things, she plans to become a marine biologist and is already looking at colleges to begin her studies to achieve that goal. Jorell loves meeting new people, soccer, and she wants to become a certified scuba diver. We look forward to working with this team for the rest of Fall 2015!

CEI Research Assistant works with sea turtle hatchlings in Costa Rica

For two weeks in early July, Rachel Miller, Research Assistant for the Sea Turtle Research and Conservation Program, headed to Costa Rica to lead a marine biology summer camp. This camp was comprised of 8 high school students from all over the United States who came to Costa Rica to learn more about worldwide sea turtle conservation initiatives and to help better the community. Rachel holds one of the hawksbill hatchlings that hatched on 17 July in Pacuare

Leatherback babies prepared for release

The camp worked in conjunction with WIDECAST – Pacuare, a conservation program located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Here, Rachel and the campers had the opportunity to assist with hatchery construction, night walks, and hatchling releases. Even though it is illegal, poaching is a major issue in Costa Rica, especially in poorer communities. These communities have subsisted on the consumption and sale of turtle eggs and meat for decades. However, WIDECAST – Pacuare is working to combat poaching through the use of night walks (led by former poachers, used as an alternative source of income), a guarded hatchery (used to monitor relocated nests and protect the eggs from predators and poachers), and education initiatives (public hatchling releases, lectures, and social media).

 

One of nine hybrid hatchlings, the result of a successful mating between a hawksbill and a Kemp's Ridley

During their time in Pacuare, Rachel and the campers got to see leatherback hatchlings make their way into the sea and on the last day, they were rewarded with a hawksbill hatching! It is common for leatherbacks to nest on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica from February until the end of June and the babies begin to hatch in May until the end of July. Hawksbill sea turtles, however, nest less frequently, and there were only two hawksbill nests in the hatchery during the time the camp was taking place. Not only was the hawksbill hatching special in and of itself, but the nest consisted of 9 hybrid hatchlings– these babies were the result of a successful mating between a hawksbill and a Kemp’s Ridley. Unlike most hybrids, the offspring of a hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley are thought to be fertile and it is believed that this is the fourth generation of these hybrids. The reason that all 120 hatchlings were not hybrids is because many sea turtle nests have multiple paternities, resulting in typical hawksbill hatchlings and hybrid hatchlings.

Leatherback babies make their way to the sea, blending in with the black sands of Costa Rica

Rachel and the campers came away from this trip with a better understanding of how conservation works outside of the United States. It is often difficult to enforce laws and regulations, especially if people are reliant on an organism for food or income and if that community has no other source of income. Sea turtle populations continue to be exploited, but conservation efforts are in effect worldwide, and protecting eggs and nesting mothers helps to aid in the redevelopment of healthy sea turtle populations on a global scale. For more information on the project in Pacuare, click here.