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Leatherback Turtles Re-visited
By Jason Heller, June 23, 2007 @ 02:00 AM (EST)

By Larry McKenna 

During the months of July and August, I and a select group of adventurers from Mexico, Australia, Germany, England, France, Spain, Singapore and the United States visited the nesting beaches of the Pacific Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys Coriacea), in very remote Papua Barat, Indonesia.  My initial visits and exposure to these “Gentle Giants of the Pacific”© was a year previously in a far different manner than these just concluded trips.   

Giant Leatherback Female Exiting Her Nest After Laying Eggs. S.O.l.O. Director, Tony Moats Examines Nesting Evidence 

The purposes of these visits to the Leatherbacks have many objectives:  a) to obtain factual information about the turtles; their nesting locations and environmental hazards.  b) To assess the activities of the non Indonesian groups/Foundations/Donor/other Govt. agencies which have been involved in research over the past years of records and to assess what (if any) improvements have been accomplished toward saving these turtles. c) To understand what actions are on going or planned to increase the hatch out rates and adult survival & return ratios may be. d)  To assess based on our 2005 visits and data compilation if any noticeable or significant changes are evident over a 1 year period. 

A summary of the findings (to be expanded upon and a more lengthy article) presented both encouraging and discouraging information. 

Encouraging:  There appears to be MORE involvement with the turtle research at both Papua beaches of Jamursba-Medi (JM) and Wermon in process by indigenous Papuan people.  Students and faculty of the University of Papua have undertaken Leatherback research at both beaches to count nests, emerging females from the sea and egg hatch rates as compared to number of eggs laid.   

Govt. Environmentalists, Univ. of  Papua Students and S.O.L.O. Volunteers Conduct Research as Leatherback Heads Back to the Sea 

Their program is assisted by the Environmental Department of Indonesian Govt in Papua II (Sorong region).  A very competent researcher of this Department has been assigned as their mentor and “Guardian”. 

As in any new program, there are “flubs” at the beginning.  Where this was explained (to me) as a full nesting season program to keep people AT the beaches for the entire nesting season --- as this has NEVER been done to collect an entire season of complete data --- that concept fell short with students arriving and departing to only obtain sufficient data for their term research paper. At one period, there were 2 groups on the beaches which collected conflicting data.  

This is a beginning with promise of a more comprehensive University involvement later.  My chats with the University staff indicate they are motivated and will correct some earlier misunderstandings.  That Papuan University level students wish to and are becoming involved in efforts to save this endangered specie on THEIR home land beaches is terrific.  With our support, perhaps a genuine good can come of this program. 

Our teams of hired villagers with management oversight have initiated a portion of our designed program (to the limited extents allowed by funds Donated). This season 4 men patrol the entire 18 km of JM beach at night, every 2 nights; 2 go East and 2 to West from the central house location. Egg nests are marked and initial data is taken.  A turtle tagging effort is underway.  As in years past, a goal of equipping 5 females each season continues.  This year, only 2 turtles were instrumented as a direct result of decreased numbers arriving at the beach to nest.  The day effort of marking the exact nest locations is handicapped by funds to hire more helpers.  The extreme heat of the sand becomes unbearable, even for Papuan feet at about mid day.  We need to hire more staff. 

Discouraging:  Overall, there appear to be FEWER females returning to nest than 1 year before.  This was predicted, based on models postulated in my book; “Almost Gone” as developed from 2005 nesting data and was correlated with research by accepted scientists.  In 2005 we estimated there were approximately 700 nesting females remaining in the Pacific families. Now, 1 year later, this number appears to be approximately 400! The decrease in numbers approaches that estimated to be killed by Asian Longline fishing boats who still scour the Pacific with NO checks and balances of how and what they wantonly kill in search of tuna and sword fishes.  The beaches are less studded with nest stick markers than before.  The stark decrease in nests is a definite indicator of serious troubles to the survival issue. 

The number of females who come to the beach, look for her nesting location and then go to sea is now about 30% of the total females which exit the sea.  The reasons are not known, as he research as to “why” has not been thought of yet.  The lessening on the number of nests and eggs by this event adds to the peril of specie survival.  

Leatherback Female Goes Back to the Sea without Laying Eggs 

The number of eggs per nest and the hatching ratio is in a worsening state as compared to 2005. Eggs laid per nest are less; many are deformed (excluding the “false egg” numbers).  We identified a total hatch out of between 3 and 5 babies from a nest of 60 to 70 eggs. 

5 Just Hatched Babies Fresh From Climbing Out of a Nest of 100 Eggs Laid. 

No MORE Survived.  These 5 Went to the Sea. 

  These were observed in real time and by searching for the little flipper marks in the wet sand heading to sea.  Back tracks led to their nests which were uncovered by the local experts to reveal more nest damages.  About 10 to 15% of the babies which crawled out of nests, we observed, were deformed.  They died before reaching the water. 

            Added study on other turtle populations indicates that the egg shells are not as impervious to water seeping as thought.  The shells, even though appearing to be hard, are porous.   

 

Sea Water and Hot Sun Destroys Eggs Before Hatching 

When the sea water from Global Warming soaks the nests as reported

Previously (“ALMOST GONE”), now it is postulated that the water penetrates the shell and drowns the embryo, in addition to cooking others with the hotter temperatures. 

            Egg predation by both wild and domestic pigs and dogs continue, even with the presence of more people armed with rifles on the beaches. 

Armed Beach Guard to TRY to Reduce Predation. 

2 “Wild” Pig Destroyed Nests in Background 

These observations will be expanded later as added information continues to flow to us from our Indonesian “partners” in this enterprise. 

On return from the Expeditions in late August, we were and are excited to receive a message from Project Aware Australia.  The note announced that Project Aware had approved a grant of funds to assist with our All - Volunteer efforts to save these Giant Turtles.  We, as a Foundation, are quite pleased that the PADI family has elected to become a Partner with us.  The Grant request was our 1st request for help and 1st to be approved.  We hope this “seed money” and environmental Partnership will be an excellent harbinger to more Donors to pitch in and help us. 

 

Will THIS Leatherback Female Return in 2007? 

For further information on our efforts AND to become a Donor and Supporter and a Volunteer, go to our web site:  www.leatherbackturtles.org   YOUR financial help is most necessary for us to succeed.

_________________________________________________________________ 

July and August, 2007   Two (2) ---10 Night and 11 Day Leatherback Expeditions  

2 NIGHTS AND DAYS AT LEATHERBACK TURTLE NESTING BEACH IN REMOTE IRIAN JAYA.  At night you can locate and observe YOUR Turtle lay her eggs and search for babies hatching and going to the sea.  You also may help in research activities. 

8 DAYS OF FABULOUS DIVING AMONG BEST DIVE SITES AMONG THE RAJA AMPAT ISLANDS OF EAST INDONESIA. (Acclaimed by all Experts & Marine Biologists as “BEST in World”)  Dives will be led by Bonnie McKenna who KNOWS where the great dive spots are.  Bonnie lived in the Ampats and has dived extensively all around these islands.  We will dive the very “best of the best” sites.  All divers MUST have DAN/PADI or like dive evacuation insurance.  ALL dives are in Open Ocean.  Strong currents could be encountered.   Divers MUST have a minimum of 50 ocean dives 

TRIP 1:  July 21 to 31.    TRIP 2 August 2 to 12.  Boat Departs from Sorong at noon of the first day of each trip.  Departure is on morning of last day of each trip. 

COST is USD$2,000.  P. PERSON (Double Occupancy) ---  **** The boat costs are deep discounted by Indonesian Boat Owners to support the survival of the Leatherback Turtles.  Normal price would be about $3,300. p. p. AIR FARE// ENROUTE HOTELS//MEALS ARE NOT INCLUDED IN THIS PRICE.  (Bonnie is developing an International discount air package.  (E-Mail her at: bonniemckenna@earthlink.net for details).  We (S.O.L.O.) will arrange air and hotels inside of Indonesia for you at NO commissions. 

***** FULL COST OF TRIP INCLUDING AIR FARE AND HOTELS/FOODS MAY BE TAX DEDUCTABLE.   (USA and Canada Citizens) 

EACH EXPEDITION IS LIMITED TO 12  PARTICIPENTS.  2 / CABIN. 

Payment Schedule:  Initial Deposit of $500. due on Feb 24, 2007.  (This Deposit reserves YOUR space.)  Second payment of $500. Due on April 24, 2007.  Final Payment of $1,000 Due on June 10, 2007.  Payments are not refundable. Funds (should you cancel) will go to liquidated damages of boat owners. (Suggest trip insurance to protect the costs.) 

Send your Deposit by check or money order (no credit card facility available) to:  Save Our Leatherbacks Operation.  4582 East Kingwood Drive, Suite #143, Kingwood, Texas 77345. 

Spaces are reserved when your Deposit arrives.  Questions???  E-Mail us at address above. 

Trip details and release forms will be sent to those who pay deposits. 

#

© Photos and Text by Larry McKenna; Happy Cat Productions. All rights are reserved.  E-Mail:  happycatproductions@earthlink.net    

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