Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada – The Great Turtle Race came to a close on Wednesday, but closed on a very high note: a landmark event for science and for effective conservation.
Organized by Conservation International and National Geographic with field partner the Canadian Sea Turtle Network, the two-week online event has captured the attention of many thousands around the world. Urged on by an all-star lineup of Race supporters including Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, RATATAT, U.S. Olympic swimmers, professional surfers, and marine conservationists, Race fans have enthusiastically followed the journey of 11 leatherback turtles from Canada to the Caribbean.
The first place trophy was claimed on Monday by Pearl Jam’s turtle, Backspacer, who was cheered across the finish line by her coach, breaststroker Eric Shanteau. “I’d like to take all the credit,” admitted Shanteau, “but really, I just showed her the door; she had to go through it.”
Despite Backspacer’s win, it is fifth-place finisher Wawa Bear who’s making headlines today. In a scientific first, Wawa Bear was tracked all the way from her foraging grounds in Canada directly to her nesting beach in French Guiana, where Dr. Jean-Yves Georges and Virginie Plot, sea turtle experts from the Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien and the Mirette Project French, met her on Yalimpo beach.
This unprecedented event has provided scientists with the first-ever complete set of sea turtle migration data, and underscored the critical significance of multinational conservation efforts to protect a species that routinely crosses international borders and faces threats throughout its ocean range.
“This turtle speaks not only to the importance of having a dialogue between people working in the foraging area and people on the nesting beaches,” says Dr. Mike James, director of science for the Canadian Sea Turtle Network, the research group that deployed the satellite tracking devices used to follow the turtles in the Great Turtle Race, “but also to the international, cosmopolitan nature of leatherbacks and the importance of trying to recover them in a coordinated way.”
AUDIO: Listen to Mike James describe his experience watching Wawa Bear’s migration to her nesting beach and waiting for word that she had been spotted.
Thanks to a remarkable 15 years of nesting data on the turtle, James knew that she was likely to nest in French Guiana and, from his office in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had been keeping his French colleagues posted about Wawa Bear’s latest locations and imminent approach to the beach they monitor for leatherback nesting activity.
“When the turtle got down to tropical waters, she foraged far off the coast of South America for several weeks,” said James, “Then she suddenly started to swim towards the coast very quickly.”
Finally, after months of migration and expectation, Wawa Bear nested during the early morning of March 22, in the same location where she has nested every two years since 1993. And, thanks to open international collaboration, the French researchers were ready for her. She laid 95 billiard ball-sized eggs, and she weighed a whopping 560 kilograms (over 1,200 pounds). “She is one of the biggest turtles we have ever weighed in French Guiana,” says Georges. “She weighed 50 percent more than our average nesting turtles!”
“Our research has shown that turtles tend to be 33 percent heavier in Canada when they are bulking up on jellyfish than on the nesting beach after their migration,” adds James. “That would have put this turtle over 700 kilograms – more than 1,500 pounds – when we worked with her in the summer.”
Since first being spotted this season, Wawa Bear has nested an additional three times and will likely continue nesting for another month.
“We are happy we could weigh her successfully each time she has nested,” says Georges. “She is one of our main targets to monitor this year – the only turtle for which we have migration data.”
“The epic treks that Wawa Bear and the other leatherbacks make remind us that all of us humans are connected in many ways, especially through nature,” commented Roderic Mast, VP of Conservation International. “We have to remember that we’re all sitting around the same big “ocean ponds,” sharing the same air, the same earth, and what we take out and what we put in the seas will not only affect other creatures, like sea turtles, but other humans, ourselves included.”
“We have to work together,” adds Georges. “Whatever country, whatever location. We have to conserve leatherbacks as an international resource.”
Photos available at http://drop.io/GTRMedia0429
Executive Director of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network
Phone: (902) 423-6224
Dr. Mike James
Phone: (902) 426-3515
Dr. Jean-Yves Georges
Phone: 011 594 694 439 571
Phone: (703) 341-2685
President, FITZGIBBON/ Media LLC
Office Phone: 202-506-7162
FITZGIBBON/ Media LLC
Office Phone: 202-506-7162