After nearly four months of living in Armila, several members of the community reported the first nesting attempt of a leatherback sea turtle on January 28th (18 days earlier than last year). This marks the beginning of the leatherback nesting season in Armila, which peaks in May and finishes completely in August, when I am scheduled to return to the United States.
It also marks the official beginning of the research component of my work here, which is just one element of a multifaceted community-based conservation plan that is finally starting to heat up. I´ll discuss updates on the community projects on the next post in early March, but wanted to take the time to discuss the scientific component of my work here in this post.
On February 2nd, I began monitoring the beaches according to SWOT's Minimum Data Standards for Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Monitoring. This means I walk the entirety of the beach four mornings per week and record the number of sea turtle emergences that occurred the previous night by counting the large tracks or "crawls" left in the sand, which to someone who's never seen them before look like the tire mark of a giant, 4-foot wide tractor wheel. Each emergence is photographed and geo-referenced.
This is the first time that this beach will be closely monitored for such a long period during the nesting season, and will not only give us an idea as to how many turtles nest here during the year, but where on the beach they are nesting. This could help the community prioritize their regular beach-cleanups, which are done in preparation for peak nesting season and the arrival of tourists.
While I will be keeping track of when, where, and how many turtles are nesting, another piece of data that interests me is the reliability of community's daily turtle count. The walk along the beach is not only made by the turtle researcher 4 times a week, but by anyone that happens to be gathering coconuts, going hunting, gathering plantains, or hewing out a new canoe near the San Bernardo river. People routinely count the tracks and report them offhandedly, so I plan to actively solicit and keep track of all reported counts and run a statistical comparison to my confirmed counts over the course of the season.
In addition, I've invited everyone in the town to learn the monitoring techniques I am using, so that they can collect photographic and geographical information on turtle crawls. The way the GPS data is collected allows me to confirm that volunteer researchers have walked the entirety of the beach, and the geo-referenced photos allow me to see all the crawls that the volunteer is recording as fresh crawls that occurred the previous night. At the end of the year, I hope to
identify a group of people that are adept at generating this data and maybe help them secure a research grant for subsequent years of monitoring.
The beginning of nesting has given me a second wind here in Armila, which is helping me restore the energy sapped from me daily by manual labor with the community and the swelteringly humid climate. I look forward to the start of the school year in late February, when I will help revive the after-school science club and Amanda and I will meet with teachers to decide our role in managing the school's curriculum for natural sciences and computer science.