I was lucky enough to experience both adult and hatchling field seasons. I also worked on the other beaches which are monitored by a small team of 3 to 4 people. During which, I was trained in the mode of ‘detective’, patrolling beaches during the day and finding nests.
Now ‘detective’ mode requires the ability to think like a turtle and skills in wielding a stick. Turtles (particularly Greens) dig massive holes that can spread across several meters in length and be up to a meter in depth. They then dig a tiny egg chamber which detectives must find, uncover, take measurements and then cover again. The stick is used to penetrate the sand and confirm the egg chambers location, identified by a dramatic change in resistance as you push the stick down. Once you learn the behaviour and digging pattern of the different turtle species it becomes a lot easier to locate the egg chamber first time. However this is a painful learning experience and mistakes can lead to hours of digging in the baking heat. Learning to be a ‘turtle detective’ was, for me, the most rewarding with the feeling that you really got to know the animal’s behaviour.
There are lots of different turtle conservation groups around the world, but if I had to give my biased opinion, I would definitely recommend MTRG. For early career conservationists and biologists that need to build on field experience for their CV, MTRG provides the opportunity to get stuck in to challenging yet rewarding fieldwork. Not only this, but as well as Cyprus there are projects in Gabon and the Ascension Islands
Day patrols are set up to monitor the nests for hatching events. Once a hatching event is identified the nest is dug up and the remaining hatchlings are taken back to base to be measured and, that night, set free.
Now I’m sure there are a lot of people squirming with excitement at the thought of seeing baby turtles, but there is a darker side to this season which goes by the name of ‘yuffing’! Yuffing is a process of opening up the unsuccessful eggs and identifying what stage of development they reached. Now generally this is a pleasant experience however, a failed nest is monitored until the point that it definitely couldn’t have hatched. This almost guarantees that all 20+ eggs will be swollen and ready to burst out their decomposing contents.
Fieldwork is split into two seasons;
Night patrols are conducted looking for turtle activity. Once a turtle track is found the volunteer enters ‘ninja’ mode and stealthily hunts down the turtle, being careful not to be seen in case the turtle gets scared and goes back to sea. The volunteer then waits patiently for the turtle to select a spot, dig a nice big hole and start laying.
While laying the turtle becomes less sensitive to disturbance allowing the volunteer to enter ‘data’ mode. Using a red light the volunteer can now take lots of measurements including carapace dimensions, barnacle cover, nest depth and distance from the water. An ID of the individual is also taken by reading flipper or pit tags. If the tags aren’t present then the turtle is assigned a new ID and provided with tags.
Despite working through the night and sleeping through the day, this is a great season to get hands on with the turtles and help generate lots of data.
Way back in 2011, while in my second year of undergraduate studies, I volunteered to help with the Marine Turtle Research Group (MTRG) in N. Cyprus. This was my first experience of ‘hard-core’ fieldwork with limited resources, long hours and collecting data that would actually contribute to academic work.
The research is conducted between the months of May-October, when both Green and Loggerhead turtles drag themselves up beaches to nest. The group collect data on aspects of turtle behaviour and ecology that helps towards turtle conservation.
In Cyprus there are a series of beaches that are important nesting grounds for turtles, but the focal beach where research is conducted most rigorously is Alagadi. Alagadi is where the main base camp is located and where volunteers spend a lot of time preparing equipment, welcoming tourists and socialising with other volunteers. It’s safe to say that I got to meet some really cool people, many of which I am still in contact with today!
Marine Turtle Research Group
Copyright Jared Wilson-Aggarwal - JWA 2015