New roommates take a trip to Trinidad to study sea turtles

October 17, 2011 under CANR News

Getting to know a new roommate can be tricky. Some people like to call and talk to their new roommate to get to know them a little bit, some even like to hang out before moving in together, and some, like University of Delaware students Stephanie Principati and Racine Boyle, opt to take a trip together to Trinidad to monitor sea turtles.

Principati, a senior pre-veterinary major and animal conservation minor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and an Honors Program student, explained that the two students met through mutual friends and that “being forced to live together for 12 days was a good way to get to know each other.”

Boyle, a professional and continuing studies student, added, “It was actually a really good start to our roommate experience.”

Volunteering for Nature Seekers, a non-profit animal conservation group based in Matura, Trinidad, the two spent 12 days on the beaches studying leatherback sea turtles.

During those 12 days, they helped track the creatures by tagging nesting turtles, giving them a flipper tag and a muscular tag that they injected. For those turtles that were already tagged, they took a GPS location of their nesting site.

Principati said that since Nature Seekers volunteers started tracking the sea turtles, they have seen the same turtles coming back to the same location to nest.

The UD students also measured the length and width of the turtles’ shells and recorded any scars or injuries. Boyle also said that if a turtle had been injured in any way and was unable to dig its own nesting site, a member of the team would be on hand to “help injured sea turtles dig out their nests, which they couldn’t have done on their own.”

It is ideal to tag and measure the 800-pound turtles as they lay their eggs, Principati explained, because the behemoths “go into a trance” when they are giving birth and are thus available to be tagged and measured.

Another part of their work was to wait five minutes after the newborn turtles hatched and then dig up the nests to look for any stragglers that got left behind in the bedlam that ensues as 100 baby sea turtles race for the ocean.

They would also follow any baby turtle tracks they found on the beach to look for nests that might still contain the little ones. Principati said that sometimes the baby turtles on the bottom of the nest get stuck and so the students would dig around and try to find any that got left behind and help them make it to the sea.

The students estimated that they found two or three turtles that got left behind each time and, overall, they said that they tagged about 15 turtles and dug about eight nests each night, working from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Principati said the first night they were on duty, “We got lucky — we just happened to walk on the beach when one of the nests was erupting so all of a sudden there’s turtles coming out of the sand.”

Making sure that all the turtles make it to the water safely is critical for helping out the endangered species. Principati explained that the turtles are endangered in large part due to overfishing — adult sea turtles provide a lot of meat and turtle eggs are considered a delicacy.

Overfishing is not the only way humans are adversely affecting these creatures, however, as Boyle said they witnessed first hand a turtle that had been run over by a boat’s propeller. “Its shell was very mutilated and it was a really deep wound. It was so sad.”

But humans aren’t the only threat to the turtles. Stray dogs will run on the beach and dig up the baby turtles nest and eat them, and vultures will try to eat the baby turtles as they are crawling toward the sea. Once they get to the sea, the turtles also have to look out for sharks, which also pose a threat to their survival.

All of these threats make it critical to save as many turtles as possible for the survival of the species, and it makes groups like Nature Seekers and volunteers like Principati and Boyle all the more important.

The two said that they had a great time on their trip, both by working during the night and seeing soccer games and visiting waterfalls and local villages on their down time during the day, and they would recommend the trip and the group to anyone interested.

Said Boyle of the trip, “Every day we were there, we were like, ‘this is the best thing we’ve ever done.’ We did not want to leave. We could’ve stayed there for another month. Everything about it was perfect and Stephanie was the best person to go with.”

Principati echoed that sentiment saying, “It was really nice. One night, we were just laying on the beach, waiting for this turtle to lay her eggs and we were like, ‘alright, we’re laying on a beach, in Trinidad, at 2 in the morning — this is pretty cool.’ It was the perfect trip.”

Article by Adam Thomas

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