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2017/18 Turtle Season Summary

Natalie with a Hawksbill turtle tagged with satellite tracking

In February we concluded our first EVER season of Turtle Conservation Internships!

There is very little known about sea turtle populations in Papua New Guinea. Our aims for the 2017/18 turtle nesting season were to create a baseline dataset on the population of nesting green and hawksbill turtles at the Conflict Islands and subsequently to create a long-term yearly comparison of sea turtle populations at the Conflict Islands. During this study we worked together with WWF Australia to identify the genetic stock of the nesting female hawksbill turtles and foraging juvenile green turtles. We also aimed to identify where the female hawksbill turtles nesting at the Conflict Islands are travelling after the nesting season.

The taking of turtles for consumption and trade/sale is very common in PNG. We aimed to reduce this take by engaging local communities in discussions about turtle conservation and the impact this take will have on the marine environment.

After a year of planning, it’s safe to say we were all very excited for the first trip to finally commence!

Trip 1

On the 3rd of November we welcomed our first turtle volunteers to the Conflict Islands! This first Trip we had the smallest group, with only 6 volunteers.

Trip 1 volunteers doing theory work

The trip started well with 3 green turtles tagged on the first night! Throughout the trip the volunteers have encountered sailing canoes coming onto the islands to take turtles. During the second week of the internship we interrupted a group of young boys trying to take some hawksbill turtle eggs! The volunteers rescued the eggs and reburied them in the sand.

The day time was spent diving, snorkelling, kayaking and playing with baby turtles!

On Monday the 13th November we conducted community engagement at Panaeati Island. We spent time talking to the 2 elementary schools and 1 primary school about turtle conservation. Our volunteers made up some posters about the impacts of plastic pollution in the marine environment and presented them to the young kids. We capitalised on the positive response that we received from the schools to arrange a meeting with the local councillor and many elders of the community.

There was some discussion and debate among the community, however the overall response was very positive. Many of the people in the Panaeati community showed support for the work that we are doing and the conservation goals that we are working towards.

Across these first two weeks the volunteers and turtle staff have tagged 42 sea turtles, 36 green turtles and 6 hawksbill turtles. An amazing effort by our Turtle Team!!

To top off the trip we found 3 hawksbill hatchlings on the last turtle patrol of the trip! Our new babies (named Maddy, Inga and Luko) are now safely swimming around our Turtle Nursery!

A big thank you to our amazing volunteers Tracey, Maddy, Inga, Ludo, Lythiah and Viniu!!!

Volunteers with the local turtle rangers

Trip 2

Our second group of volunteers arrived in Papua New Guinea on the 17th November. This was a much bigger group than the first trip, with 10 volunteers coming out to the Conflict Islands.

The first night of patrols started well with one green turtle already on the island when we arrived! Across the trip we had an average of 5 turtles per night! A total of 61 turtles were processed over the 2 weeks, 42 of these were new tags!

Community visits are part of the volunteer program

When the volunteers weren’t on patrol they spent their days swimming, diving and looking after our baby turtles in the nursery. They also participated in our (very competitive) weekly soccer match against the island staff!

During the first week of the trip we had a P&O cruise ship come to the Conflict Islands, this gave the volunteers a chance to experience a different side to the islands… and purchase lots of souvenirs!

Throughout the trip we had engagement with fishermen who were out at the Conflict Islands to hunt turtles. In one case our turtle staff managed to convince some young fisherman resting at Muniara Island to take us over to Kolavia Island, where they had flipped 2 hawksbill turtles onto their backs the night before. We worked together to tag and release the two female turtles and release them back into the sea.

At the end of the trip we conducted community awareness at Kwaraiwa Island, Engineer Group. This engagement went very well, with the councillor and many community members voicing their strong support for our conservation program. The volunteers then put on a skit about the impacts of plastic in the ocean for the young kids (and many adults who stayed around to watch/laugh).

A very successful trip!

A big thank you to our volunteers Laura, Courtney, Emily, Jaimee, Louise, Gemma, Selma, Azalea, Wilma and Ludo! Your involvement in our project will help to make a real difference in the conservation of turtles at the Conflict Islands!

Saying goodbye to trip 2,2018 volunteers in Alotau

Trip 3

Our 3rd volunteer trip of the season started on the 1st of December. After a slow start the trip really took off, with a record number of turtles tagged!

A game of soccer with the village children is always fun

When they weren’t in the Turtle Nursery or doing data entry the volunteers spent their day’s snorkelling, diving and playing card games. The best dive of the trip was at Muniara Island, where a few lucky volunteers and our divemaster Dave had an amazing encounter with a manta ray!!

Our boat the MV Undersea Explorer moved around the atoll to a different anchorage every day. The volunteers went out at night and monitored 14 of the 21 islands within the Conflicts Atoll.

At Aroroa Island we had a lovely beach picnic, with lots of good food (Thanks Esther!), good music and some touch rugby.

Halfway through the trip we conducted community awareness at west Panaeati Island. This awareness was much more positive than our first trip to Panaeati. After much discussion all of the adults present voted to stop hunting turtles at the Conflict Islands for the rest of this season! A big win for us!

After the awareness the volunteers purchased some souvenirs and had running races with the young kids.

Over the 2 weeks a total of 65 new turtles were tagged, 61 green turtles and 4 hawksbill turtles. Over the last few weeks we have commenced our collaboration with WWF Australia, collecting genetic samples from hawksbill turtles. We collected our first 2 samples from Kolavia Island, on the South East edge of the Conflicts Atoll.

On the final day of the trip we had the weekly soccer match with Turtle Team vs Conflict Islands staff. Very happy to say that the Turtle Team won 5-7! Great work to our turtle guides and volunteers for a great game! We had a post-match celebratory bonfire with Hula Dancing, taught by JayJay and a competitive game of Limbo!

A big thank you to Lisa, Vanessa, Jess, Sarah, Soeren, Ella, Mitch, Ben, Sam, Lara and Ludo for a great trip!

Trip 3 ends with a groupie

Trip 4

Trip 4 got off to a rocky start with 4 of our volunteers missing their flights into Alotau (twice), due to overbooked flights!

How big is your plastic foot print collage done by trip 4,2018 volunteers

Once everyone made it to the island the volunteers hit the ground running! Over the 2 weeks the volunteers processed 83 Turtles- 74 green and 9 hawksbills, of these 49 were new tags!

During one night patrol at Panarakuum Island volunteers came across 2 critically endangered hawksbill turtles and 1 endangered green turtle flipped onto their back in the bushes. Fishermen had left the turtles like this, intending to come back later in the night with a bigger boat and collect the turtles on their way into Alotau. Fortunately we were able to save the turtles, tagging them and taking a genetic sample, before releasing them back into the wild.

On Christmas Day volunteers and turtle staff had a beach BBQ at Aroroa Island! After everyone had stuffed themselves with Esther’s wonderful food we held our Secret Santa. Everyone put their creative skills to the test and made a present (except for a few who got their presents from the souvenir shop..). The afternoon was finished off by jumping off the bow of the UE, before we headed out on another turtle patrol!

On the 28th December we went out to Panapompom Island for community awareness. We met with the councillor and recorder on the boat early in the morning before going over to the island with the volunteers to meet with other community members. There were a lot of questions about the project, however overall the community stood up and spoke in support of conservation. At the end of the awareness the community voted to stop taking turtles from the Conflict Islands.

A big thank you to our volunteers Ludo, Jorja, Jess, Cecile, Sophie, David, Avi, Abby, Maddy, Mitch, Magena, Courtney and Tony!!

They sure made new friends

Trip 5

For Trip 5 we were lucky enough to be joined by Christine Hof from WWF Australia and Dr Ian Bell from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. Chris and Ian came out to the Conflict Islands as part of a project to discover more about hawksbill turtles.

Measured, tagged and released back into the wild

We started off our patrols on New Year’s Eve at Irai Island. That night on Irai we found 5 green turtles and 1 hawksbill turtle. The hawksbill turtle, now named Steven, was brought back to our boat (the UE) where a satellite tag was placed onto her carapace by Christine. Steven was then released early the next morning, with the satellite tag tracking her location as she swam around the conflicts atoll and then back to her feeding ground. At the end of the patrol we sat around a bonfire, listening to music and waiting for the countdown! At midnight we let off fireworks on the beach send-off 2017 in style!

On the 2nd December Chris and Ian briefed us all about the field technique “Turtle Rodeo”, where turtles are caught in the water at their feeding grounds. We used this technique to catch juvenile green turtles feeding at the Conflict Islands. These turtles were then tagged and genetic samples were taken to find out which genetic stock they belong to, and therefore where they travelled from before arriving at the Conflict Islands. Later than night 2 hawksbill turtles were found nesting on Muniara Island (named Lenny and Thomas). Both turtles laid eggs, the eggs were then counted and measured to check the health of the eggs, the sand temperature was recorded and data loggers were left in the nests to measure the sand temperature over time. Satellite tags were placed on both turtles.

Gearing up for beach patrols.

Later that night turtle staff Steven and Jonathon swam across to a small island next to Aroroa Island where they found another hawksbill turtle. Steven and Jonathon swam back to Aroroa with the turtle and brought her back to the UE where a satellite tag was placed on her carapace. We named her Jonathon.

Overall a very successful night, with three satellite tags placed onto nesting hawksbill turtles!

The good luck continues throughout the trip, with a total of 8 satellite tags placed onto hawksbill turtles.

When the volunteers weren’t busy working or listening to lectures they were diving, snorkelling and paddle-boarding! Volunteers were visited by big hawksbill turtles, sharks and eagle rays on their dives!

The trip concluded with a trip to Tube Tube Island, Engineer Group for community awareness. The awareness was very successful, with a lot of interest from community members. After the awareness our turtle guide Luke took us on a tour up to the Skull Caves, where the remains of human skulls were kept when cannibalism was practiced in Papua New Guinea.

A big thank you to Chris and Ian for your help and your support of this project!

And of course thanks to our fabulous volunteers: Tess, Jess, Ann, Nick, Emma, Ludo, David, Courtney, Maddy, Nemika, Natalie and Sharon! Together we tagged 47 new adult turtles (72 processed in total). We processed 64 green turtles, 8 hawksbill turtles and 16 juvenile green turtles!

We bid farewell to all our trip 5 volunteers.

Trip 6

Trip 6 commenced on the 12th of January 2018. After a smooth trip out to the islands we began our first patrol at Irai Island. On our first lap around the island we came across a sailing canoe with fishermen from Kwaraiwa Island. The young boys on the canoe assured us that they had seen our awareness and were not on the island to hunt turtles, they were just resting before returning to their island in the morning. Overall it was a successful night for us with 5 green turtles tagged.

Began 2019 with trip 6 and keen volunteers

During each patrol staff and volunteers did their best to find an elusive hawksbill turtle, as we still had 2 satellite tags to place onto nesting female hawksbill turtles. Our first hawksbill was found on Panarakuum Island on the 16th January. The turtle, named Koyo, was brought onto the boat where the satellite tag was glued onto her carapace. The second satellite tag was placed on the 20th January to another hawksbill found at Panarakuum Island. This turtle was named Nat/Boss Merri.

Over the two weeks we were lucky enough to do some nest success surveys, with both natural nests and hatchery nests. To do this we dug up old nests that had already hatched and counted the number of hatched eggs and unhatched/undeveloped egg, as well as noting whether any eggs had been predated on.

On the 21st January we went out to Panapompom Island for community awareness. This awareness was our most successful to date! The majority of the community listened to our information about CICI and turtle conservation. Many community members had questions about whether there was more that we could all be doing to help protect our marine environment.

The awareness finished up with a game of Frisbee between the volunteers and a group of young kids!

Once back on the boat we were taken out for a snorkel to see a plane wreck of a Japanese Zero shot down during WWII. The plane wreck sits close to Panapompom Island in 2m of water and was very interesting to see!

As the trip came to an end we encountered some rough weather, which led to an uncomfortable trip back to Alotau for anyone prone to seasickness!

Thank you to our awesome volunteers: Millie S, Millie N, Felicity, Sybylla, Michealla, Ludo, Cyrus, Loic, Lucy, Anna, Alison and Natasha!!! Together we tagged 23 new turtles out of a total of 36 found (32 greens turtles, 4 hawksbill turtles).

The more the merrier

Trip 7

A nearby cyclone forming offshore delayed our departure from Alotau by 1 day. However once we made it to the Conflict Islands we had good luck on our nightly turtle patrols! With the nesting season coming to the end, there were fewer new tags than other groups. We tagged 11 new nesting turtles out of the 22 total turtles processed (21 green turtles and 1 hawksbill turtle).

The strong winds at the start of the trip caused significant beach erosion, as well as large amounts of marine debris. Once a week the volunteers did a beach clean-up to clear all the plastics that had washed ashore. These plastics were sorted and counted, we cleaned up 22.5kg of plastic waste from 2km of beach at Panasesa Island! This plastic would have washed back into the ocean at high tide if volunteers and staff and not worked to clean it up!

Bye lil fella, see you when you come back to nest

Once the weather cleared volunteers spent their days trying to get in as much diving and snorkelling as possible! The strong winds and stirred up the nutrients in the water, which meant feeding manta rays became a much more common occurrence! Manta rays were spotted by volunteer’s snorkelling, diving and one even swam past the boat!

A mid-trip picnic at Lachlan Island gave everyone a nice break from the boat. Volunteers spent the afternoon swimming, kayaking and paddle-boarding around the small reef islands!

Community awareness was conducted the next day at Panaeati Island. CICI Staff met with the councillor and elders to discuss turtle conservation and ways that the community can work together with CICI to achieve our goals for conservation and sustainability. These discussions were very positive and definitely a big step forward from our first visit to Panaeati!

In the afternoon the volunteers performed a skit about the life cycle of a turtle for the kids at Panaeati Primary School. After a few questions from the teachers we headed back to the boat. We then moved to Panapompom Island where volunteers got the chance to snorkel the plane wreck of the Japanese Zero from WWII!

On the second last day of the trip we surveyed juvenile green turtles feeding at Irai Island. We used the technique “turtle rodeo” to catch the turtles in the water, before bringing them onto the sand to tag and take a genetic sample. We were even lucky enough to get the genetics off a rare male hawksbill turtle!

When the final patrol of the season finished we all celebrated with a bonfire and music at Irai Island before returning to the boat for the last time!

A big thank you to our volunteers Molly, Charlotte, Laura, Bianca, Ella, Daniel, Yasmin, Annabelle, Emily, Gwen and Will!!

For the last time, let's take a picture

An extra thank you to Ludo French for volunteering for the whole season!!

Season data summary

From November to early February a total of 285 nesting female turtles were encountered, of these 254 were green turtles and 31 were hawksbill turtles. 22 juvenile green turtles and 1 male hawksbill turtle were also tagged.

A summary of how many turtles found on all the atolls

Figure 1: Bar graph showing the total individual female green and hawksbill turtles found nesting on each island.

Throughout the season sand temperature was monitored. At both sites the temperature dropped below 29°C for a short time in November and then remained above 29°C for the remainder of the season. This means that most of the turtles hatching at Panasesa are females and very few (possibly none) males were born in the hatcheries this season.

There was no significant difference in the hatching and emergence success for nests inside the hatchery compared with natural nests. The average hatching success rate of hatchery nests is 73%. However more data is required to find significant patterns.

These are the positions of the satellite tagged hawksbill turtles updated on the 3/03/18. These results show that hawksbill turtles are migrating between nesting grounds at the Conflict Islands to feeding grounds in Queensland and possibly the Torres Strait.

Our Hawkies on a voyage

These results show very low numbers of both green and hawksbill turtles at the Conflict Islands. Long term monitoring is necessary to build up more information on these species and to monitor the population trends. Based on these results it is clear that there is more that we need to investigate next season; why turtles are not laying eggs (roots, logs, disturbance ect), more data on hatching success inside and outside hatcheries, ways to reduce predation on natural nests at Irai and Panasesa and ways to cool down the temperature of some nests to produce male turtles.

It is crucial to protect these species and work together to increase their numbers. Without these efforts turtles will become extinct at the Conflict Islands in the next 10 years.

So serene and crystal clear

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