Breathing slow and steady. Gentle kicks of my fins. Brightly coloured fish frolic on the reef. A school of spotted eagle rays momentarily startles me. I check my pressure gauge. 1,500 psi, plenty of air left to catch my target. A large coral overhang looms before me. I round the corner and peer into a small crevice in the coral. There she is, a beautiful hawksbill turtle with a shell as valuable and sought after as ivory.
I signal to my team to move into position. A team of free divers are waiting above. I signal my dive buddy to cover the back entrance of the cave, but he won’t be needed this time. I reach in, careful not to disturb the coral with my scuba tank, and grasp the turtle by the front and back of her shell. She immediately struggles but her swimming only helps me remove her from her hiding spot. A free diver descends and I pass the turtle over to him and watch him ascend and swim the turtle back to the boat while I continue searching for more.
Back on the boat awaits Nestor ‘Matraca’ Marin, a once infamous turtle poacher who would ply these waters in search of these now critically endangered turtles to smuggle into British Honduras where they would be butchered and their shells turned into jewellery, guitar picks, rooster spurs and other ornate goods.
Today however, is a good day for this little hawksbill. Matraca now works with Littlefeet Environmental, a Jersey based non-profit focusing on marine turtle research and conservation. Based in the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, a coral reef atoll some 25 miles offshore from mainland Mexico, he knows these waters like the back of his hand. Missing half of his teeth but sporting a meticulously groomed moustache, he leads our team of international volunteers to remote patch reefs where he once made his living hunting these turtles.
His home, a rickety old palafita built on stilts above the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, now doubles as our research station. Crocodiles and Tarpon swim together just a few feet below our brightly coloured hammocks. At the end of each survey we return our catch of turtles to the station to record biometric data and administer flipper tags and a PIT tag for future identification. These tags will help us identify important migratory routes for these turtles as they are recaptured or observed nesting in other areas. We also take a small skin sample from each turtle caught for DNA analysis which will let us identify from which nesting beaches these turtles came from in the first place.
Not only are we pioneering a new area but also a new research methodology. By using a buddy pair of divers with scuba equipment we can more thoroughly search every nook and cranny of the reef for hiding turtles. The problem is that, because we are breathing compressed air, when we catch a turtle, we cannot shoot straight up to the surface as we could suffer from decompression sickness.
A chance meeting with Matraca in 2012 sparked my interest in the area. Until now there have been no formal studies of the marine turtle populations in Banco Chinchorro. He explained to me how he always found turtles there and how it had been such a lucrative area for his former trade. Almost everything we know about marine turtles comes from nesting studies of adult females as they come ashore to lay their eggs. The chance to be able to study juveniles and male turtles was very exciting.
Not only are we pioneering a new area but also a new research methodology. By using a buddy pair of divers with scuba equipment we can more thoroughly search every nook and cranny of the reef for hiding turtles. The problem is that, because we are breathing compressed air, when we catch a turtle, we cannot shoot straight up to the surface as we could suffer from lung overexpansion or decompression sickness, commonly known as the bends. Being in such a remote area, this could have life threatening consequences. Instead, through a carefully coordinated protocol, a competent free diver will descend to a depth of between five and ten metres and retrieve the turtle. We have found this technique incredibly successful to date with over 65 turtles captured in this way in Banco Chinchorro.
So far, we have worked with an international group of volunteers hailing from Jersey, Isle of Man, Bermuda, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Venezuela and Mexico. Their ages have ranged from 19-52. Our volunteers have shown that it is possible to gather invaluable data while having the time of your life in a place that few travellers or researchers get to visit.
Francesca Stammers from Jersey, who joined the project in April with her fella, Loftur Loftsson, says “I never thought I would be able to gain such hands on experience with such a exceptional and rare animal, and at the same time have so much fun. I would recommend this project to anyone looking to gain scientific experience and expedition management in an extremely remote and beautiful area.” Loftur, originally from Iceland, says “Highlight of the trip? Too many to choose from. Possibly snorkeling face to face with American Crocodiles, or being in the middle of a bait ball of Macabis being corralled by dolphins or maybe having a school of 15 Spotted Eagle Rays swim right past me.”
Now, with data from over 100 turtles of three different species, we will be returning to Jersey in July to write up our reports and offer presentations to interested groups. We will then be presenting our data at the International Sea Turtle Symposium in Turkey in the spring of 2015. We will be conducting further research expeditions to Banco Chinchorro in the near future, so if like Francesca and Loftur and our volunteers you would like to join us on an expedition, please check out our website www.littlefeet.org.uk and like us on Facebook to keep updated on our work.
If volunteering overseas is not for you, please consider adopting and naming one of our tagged turtles. For £50 you will get to name your turtle and we will send you a certificate, photo ID of your turtle and updates on future sightings. And please remember that conservation begins at home. Marine debris is a huge threat not only to marine turtles but to all sea life. Littlefeet Environmental conduct weekly beach cleans around the island of Jersey and are always welcoming more volunteers to help out. Please leave only footprints on the beach this summer!
FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT: WWW.LITTLEFEET.ORG.UK VOLUNTEER IN JERSEY, MESSAGE SADIE OR ASH: SADIE@LITTLEFEET.ORG.UK ASH@LITTLEFEET.ORG.UK VOLUNTEER ABROAD, GET IN TOUCH WITH COURTNEY: COURTNEY@LITTLEFEET.ORG.UK