10 June 2008

More Rainbows, Cloudbursts and Just Plain Sunlight...

Just another beautifully imperfect day...

Did I mention there were three turtle nests today? Two loggerheads (Caretta caretta) and a Kemp's ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) nested in the Santa Rosa area. With the loggerhead from yesterday, that brings our season total to 15 so far -- three more than we had all of last year!

With all the nests, stormfronts, rainbows and just pure sunshine today, you'll have to forgive me if I'm a bit of a pollyanna again. I really do think we should start thinking in terms of recovery for these animals instead of extinction. More on that topic later.

Some of theses are a little faded -- I didn't think to grab my polarizing filter until later.

This is the only good shot I have with my polarizing filter -- the rest of the time, it was raining too hard for me to keep my camera out long enough to put it all together.

These very localized storms and rainbows are just like the turtle stories -- localized bright and dark spots. Nesting populations are extinct in places, and we haven't figured out how to replace them. Scientists and conservationists have tried for hundreds of years to bring the green (Chelonia mydas) back to nest in Bermuda (see section 5.5) with no luck. They have foraging turtles from geneticially distinct nesting populations in the Caribbean, but over 300 years of effort and protection haven't brought them back to nest.

In Florida, Costa Rica and elsewhere, the green turtles are doing better. Check out these little guys from a Santa Rosa area nest last year. The one below has some extra scutes, and isn't as dark as he/she should be...

Leatherbacks are crashing in the Pacific, with an estimated 90% decline in the last 20 years. That's pretty bad. Warning bells are ringing there, and it's not a drill. Extinction is possible. Conservation efforts in the Pacific region are lagging behind those in the Atlantic basin, and it will be many years before we see stabilization, or maybe even growth, of the nesting populations there.

As our knowledge of these amazing animals and their roles in the ocean ecosystem improve, the work of protecting them becomes more co-operative. No one wants to see these magnificent reptiles disappear! These little hatchlings are from a nest we had in Barbados in 2000. Leatherbacks here are doing a little better, thanks to increased understanding of their behavior, migration and feeding habits, in conjunction with a lot of grassroots efforts and international co-operation.

No one knows how significant the decline has been for hawksbills (Eretmochelys imbricata), like my buddy Wrong Way Peach Fuzz. Recent research suggests there used to be 11 million hawksbills in the Caribbean Sea alone. The current population estimate is about 30,000 animals. Trapped in pools, hunted for their beautiful shells and deeply effected by the health of coral reefs and sponges, hawksbills continue to struggle.

Jordanna, Jim, a team of NMFS scientists and I satellite tagged and tracked Peach Fuzz, and 19 of her friends, to try to help stem the trade in 'tortoiseshell' or 'bekko'. We had to convince the world that they didn't belong to a single country -- they were migratory animals that are citizens of the sea, not Japan, Cuba, Antigua or anywhere else. You can see the Peach Fuzz story here: Wrong Way Peach Fuzz: A Turtle Tale

The real success story, of course, is the Kemp's ridley, and headstarting. No one thought it had worked when they suspended the project after 20+ years, but the turtles are proving us all wrong. These resilient animals, given a chance, will come back from the brink of extinction with a little concerted effort and co-operation.

Loggerheads declined an estimated 30% here in the last five years. While conservation efforts have been increasingly stringent here since the Endangered Species Act of 1973, it's taking a while for the animals to catch up, but there is reason to hope.

Beaches, and nesting habitat are more protected, providing areas for the females to nest.

At the same time that larger turtles were protected from hunts, eggs in the US were protected from poaching. It may take loggerheads 20 to 30 years to reach maturity, so the turtle eggs that benefitted from this protection are just beginning their nesting years, and may nest for 25 or 30 years or more. I tagged this turtle in 1996, and she just nested on Little Cumberland Island last week!

Until the mid-90s, adult turtles were still caught in TEDs. While TEDS have been widely mandated for years, the original design was too small to release larger loggerheads, greens and leatherbacks. This lead to the drowning deaths of huge numbers of reproductive age turtles, which is a tragic loss. Only about 1 in 10,000 eggs reaches adulthood. Coupled with the possible 30 years of nesting effort from just one adult female, the loss of a single female has a tremendous impact. Sally Murphy, in South Carolina, worked tirelessly to change TED regulations to allow even the largest adults to escape shrimp nets unharmed. We're only beginning to reap the benefits of her efforts, and will hopefully see the results on nesting beaches and foraging grounds in the coming years.

Crawls like this are appearing on local beaches, and that's a good thing. It's the result of decades of good science, good regulation and good enforcement. For scuba divers, animal lovers and beach goers, I don't have to explain how magical these animals are. For everyone else, just remember -- leatherbacks can grow to a weight of over 2,000 pounds on a diet of jellyfish alone. Imagine the impact that would have on both sports fisheries (jellies feed primarily on larval fish) and your comfort while swimming in the emerald waters of the Florida Gulf Coast.

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International Coastal Clean-Up!

The 2008 Coastal Clean-Up on Santa Rosa Island was a great success, but we can work together to make everyday a Coastal Clean-up Day... Help us keep our beaches beautiful!

For details on the 2009 coastal clean-up efforts in Pensacola or in your area, or other ways you can help, click here.

Hello World!

Hello World!
Which way to the sea?