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Website allows the public to follow the travels of five turtles caught in local waters
Five unsuspecting turtles yesterday are participants in the Bermuda Tour de Turtles, a three-month race through the Island’s waters. Each was fitted with a satellite transmitter to monitor which travels the farthest in the inaugural race as the final turtle was released at Clearwater Beach. The location of each turtle will be available online starting today, with the public able to view or pledge funds to support their favourite.
The race is the latest addition to the efforts of the Bermuda Turtle Project, an education and research programme now in its 44th year of operation. Sponsored by the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, Renaissance Re and the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy, the project studies juvenile green sea turtles and promotes sea turtle conservation.
It began as a turtle tagging and research venture, but grew to become an educational programme under the direction of Peter and Anne Meylan in 1990. The two scientists invited students from Eckerd College, where Dr Peter Meylan is a biology professor, to catch turtles. “One of the things that we wanted to know was, the green turtles in Bermuda, are they resident year-round, or are they just here in the summertime? “We needed to do wintertime sampling and it’s hard to get Bermudians in the water when it’s cold.”
From there, the educational programme grew to include students from Bermuda and many other countries with sea turtle populations. “A lot of sea turtle research is done at the nesting beach, and there it’s just the nesting females that come up. You don’t see the juveniles, you don’t see different life stages, you’re not seeing them in the water.
“Here in Bermuda it’s what we call an in-water project, where you’re catching the growing turtles.
“What we’ve done is we have a series of about 20 to 25 scientific papers written by different sea turtle biologists that the students will read and help to present and discuss, plus every day they’re doing the sampling for the Bermuda Turtle Project.”
More than 40 students from 36 countries have travelled to Bermuda to learn and research as part of the project.
Since beginning the programme on August 6, this year’s students have become well-versed in the process of catching turtles and collecting data. (See sidebar)
Bermudian Claire Grenfell, who will begin working towards her master’s degree at Bangor University in Wales this autumn, joined the Bermuda Turtle project for the first time this year. She said of the international participation: “It brings so much to it. It’s really great having people from all over. “It’s been a fantastic experience. Peter Meylan and Annie Ewert have been a fantastic source of information.“
Bermuda National Trust executive director Jennifer Gray was the Bermuda Turtle Project programme coordinator in 1990. It has become a lifelong passion, leading her to return to the turtle scene every year. “The science is exciting, the turtles are fascinating. I take vacation time from my current job to come help with this,” she said.
Ms Gray said of the international student volunteers: “Uniting human beings from across the globe has so much more value than we ever imagined.”
Dr Meylan explained that giving firsthand experience to students from the Caribbean can help protect the green sea turtles after they leave Bermuda’s waters.
“What’s really clear, and people have known this for a while, is that one country can’t be responsible for managing its own sea turtle populations.”
He explained that turtles that are born in one place travel to new areas to mature before returning as adults to nest on their home beaches. Because of these migration patterns, different countries rely on each other to protect adult turtles.
The Bermuda Turtle Project’s educational programme hopes to send students back to their home countries with new ideas on turtle conservation.
As well as having an international impact, Dr Meylan said the project can help other species besides the green sea turtle. “People really like turtles,” he said, referencing the crowd who turned up to watch the turtle be released yesterday morning. “People like turtles and so you can get them interested in conservation issues and then well, let’s make sure the beach is clean, and let’s be more careful about when we’re driving the boat not to run things over.
“It’s harder to get people interested, say, in conservation of crocodiles, you know crocodiles eat people. “Conservation of snakes is really tough but turtles, people can really grasp it. There are lots and lots of other organisms that use the sea grass beds, so sea turtles can be like a sentinel species.
“I think they’re a good model species to get people excited about conservation.”
Project aims to catch turtles and release them without doing harm
A carefully designed procedure allows the Bermuda Turtle Project to capture and collect data on as many turtles as possible without causing them any harm and then get them back in the water.
First, a 2,000-foot long net is fed out from a boat in a circle. The net has weights on the bottom and a floating strip on the top, so it stretches from the sea floor to the surface of the water.
Snorkellers swim in pairs around the circumference of the net, scanning it for turtles.
Turtles then swim into the net. It’s designed to entangle them, so they are held there until snorkellers arrive to bring them to the surface and signal to the catch boat that they have one.
If the turtle isn’t too tangled in the netting, the pair of snorkellers will untangle the animal and pass it into the catch boat.
If it’s too tied up, they make sure the turtle’s head is above water and that the net isn’t pulling on it’s neck while they wait for the catch boat.
The people in the catch boat then take the turtle and that section of the net into the boat to untangle it. Then they lay it upside down on the floor of the boat.
Once the snorkellers have done a few laps around the net, three of them start pulling the net back into the boat, while the others look for any turtles that get caught at the last minute.
The whole group then returns to the research boat to collect data. The turtles get propped upside down in rows on the deck so the data can be recorded in assembly-line fashion
Any turtles that have never been caught before get identification tags. The researchers take measurements of the turtles’ shell dimensions, then weigh them.
After taking tissue samples, the students and scientists return the turtles to the ocean one by one, waiting for them to take a breath of air before letting them dive underwater.