Green Pages

The Tale of Mr. T

By Marsha Pardee

The story began on a silent night when a lone mother was forced to leave her future babes on a washed out stretch of sand. The saga unfolds with a rescued nest, followed by a joyous night of tiny turtles scrambling for the surf and of at least one survivor that lives with a tale to tell.

May 23, 2005

The moon is full; its light sparkling across the rippling water. From the ocean’s silky embrace rises a soul returned to the site of her birth. She paddles slowly, eyeing the narrow strand of shore. As she reaches the sand, she heaves her heavy body ashore, lumbering her way past the high water mark. Unfortunately, her path is obstructed by a cliff of sand and stone and she is forced to return to the beach. Weary from her long journey and on the verge of giving birth, she seems to have no choice but to create her nest too close to the rising tides. She digs and digs and then painstakingly deposits her treasures of a lifetime. Carefully, she covers her nest and heads back to her home, the watery expanses of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

The next morning, a longtime resident of Long Bay and marine ecologist jogs with her two friends down the strand of sand known as Long Bay Beach. Almost to the end of her run, she stumbles across what can only be the telltale tracks of a mother turtle in search of a nesting site. She quickly confirms the alternate flipper tracks and races home to tell her best friend (and local turtle expert) about the miraculous find. In 14 years of nearly daily jaunts on this beach, she has never seen the tracks of a turtle. Her fear, if in fact there is a nest, is what she knows and what mama turtle may have not. In the summer, the sand on this end of the beach now tends to disappear.

Together, they race back to the site knowing time is of the essence if they need to relocate a nest. Gently, prodding and probing the sand, they find a depression and carefully start to dig. After what seems like forever, one beautiful gleaming globe of white emerges, then another and another. Placing the eggs softly into a sand-lined cooler, they count out a total of 129 eggs. Measurements are taken of the exact nest dimensions and the two scurry off in search of a more suitable site. Working as quickly as possible, due to the heat and its danger to the eggs, they relocate the nest on higher ground. Then they begin to count down the days . . .

turtle-hatchling-copyJuly 16, 2005

Morning runs now include nest site inspection and on this beautiful day, a swath of tiny turtle tracks can be seen leading from the nest to the sea. Having speculated from the mother’s type of tracks that this was a hawksbill’s nest, the early hatch was quite a surprise. As were the sharks patrolling the shallows. An all night vigil was then planned with several neighbors joining the watch to see if any more babies would emerge. Shortly after sunset, one, then two little heads poked their way through the sand. These two were whisked off to Caicos Conch Farm, in case no more should survive. Promptly and properly named Turks and Caicos, they were kept for scientific evaluation. After examining the hatchlings, it was determined that they were in fact loggerheads, not hawksbills.

A couple hours go by and it’s decided to excavate the nest once again to see how many of the 129 eggs made their way from egg to sea. As the layers of eggs emerged, so do more baby turtles struggling their way to the surface of sand. A total of 37 more babies hatched that night and were helped by a host of children and adults to make their way to the sea. By counting the discarded shells it was determined that 101 rare and endangered Loggerhead turtles survived this first stage of their lives.

turtle-mrt-3-months-ventralJune 16, 2006

Nearly a year has passed since that night of anticipation and awe, where cheers of the children are still remembered as they urged their fledgling friends on their scramble to the sea. Of the two babies kept, only Turks survived through the first harrowing week of life, but so quickly gained in strength and size, the turtle was soon dubbed “Mr. T.” Although the actual sex of turtles is not known for years (and told by the differences in their tails), the ridge of spines down the back, stubby neck, ferocious appetite and strength all led to a name change from Turks to just plain Mr. T.

Rather than gold chains, Mr. T was bejeweled with a tag that will help to identify him after his release, with training that would hopefully aid him once he was back within his own world. During this time, Mr. T was ensconced in what could be thought of as a luxury Loggerhead spa — the Caicos Conch Farm on Providenciales. In the early days, he was quartered in his own private, tub-like tank, complete with floating Sargassum weed, and fed a daily fresh surplus of baby conch. He quickly outgrew these surroundings and was given a private offshore 70 m diameter “pen-house,” where he could swim more freely and learn to feed off his natural environment. But his trainers and surrogate mothers still made weekly feeding forays, where he was hand-fed conch meat and supplied with live jellyfish and then scrubbed occasionally to keep his shell clean in the shallow waters. Somewhat the spoiled celebrity, he would at times not grace them with his presence, but would otherwise generally show up in a feisty mood to get his scrubs and meals.

Although a strong fighter for sure, Mr. T’s fate was not to stay in the ring-shaped pen, but to make his fame visiting the Islands’ schools. Children of all sizes got to see and touch the now sizable Mr. T while learning about what he liked to do the in the wild, and just how special and few there are of his kind left in the world. Most importantly, they learned what they could do to help more of his brethren survive.

turtle-mrt-visits-school-coJuly 21, 2006

Finally, the time came for Mr. T to return to his ocean home. For the Islands’ most popular turtle, no greater send-off could be envisioned as the one organized by the 2006 Junior Park Warden Program students. Held by the shores of palatial Point Grace, billowing white tents housed the celebrities in attendance, with Mr. T center-stage in his own aquaria. Several speeches were made by local dignitaries, honoring the accomplishments of the Junior Park Wardens, while advocating the importance of environmental education and awareness in this rapidly developing country. Mr. T and his role in educating the nation’s youth was further sanctioned by the TCI’s First Lady, who then released him into the turquoise waters of Grace Bay. The students created a “red carpet” corridor for the scaly celebrity to swim through as he made his way to the fringing reefs and open ocean that will be his home.

January, 2007

Months later, there is still no sign of Mr. T, but he now has thousands of miles to roam and explore in his ocean home and many years of life to do so. We can only hope that the humans he encounters along the way will respect his right to life as one of the few remaining turtles of his kind. And there is still the possibility that Mr. T is actually a she, and that she may one day return to the quiet shores of Long Bay Beach, gracing us with another nest of baby Loggerheads to keep the cycle of life and its natural wonders continuing in perpetuity.

Dear Mr. T,

Thank you for sharing your time while showing us what an amazing natural world we all live in. We wish you a safe journey and a full and productive life. Please come see us again.

With Love, from the Children of the TCI

Take care, my little one, and thanks for giving me such a worthwhile tale to tell . . . Marsha Pardee

Turtle Facts:

Of the 250 different species of turtles, only 7 types live in the sea. Marine turtles mature between 30–50 years of age, with females nesting for at least two decades of their lives. It is thought that turtles can live up to 100 years old. Males and females are differentiated by their tails, with the male’s tail becoming comparatively long to aid in sperm deposition when mating. Courtship and mating occur in the water, often near the nesting beaches, but sometimes in open ocean. Mating occurs about 30 days before the female begins nesting, but the one mating will suffice for a whole season’s eggs.

Females may nest several times (2–6 clutches) during a season, which is typically the warmer months of the year, with the duration depending upon geographical location of the nesting beach. Most females will return to nest at 2–7 year intervals. During each nesting event, a female will lay an average of 100 eggs.

Nests can be up to 1 meter in depth, and somewhat bottle-shaped. Sea turtle eggs are soft, spherical and white, approximately 40–60 mm in diameter. The eggs’ development is rapid, with an embryo having a beating heart and well developed eye after a mere 10 days. Sunlight, weather, and associated temperatures are important factors in development, with the average turtle hatch taking somewhere between 6–10 weeks after the eggs are laid. Temperature also determines sex ratio within the nest, with warmer temperatures favoring females. Different turtle species also have slightly different incubation times.

The most commonly seen marine turtles in the TCI are Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and Hawksbills (Eretmochelys imbricate). Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) are much less common, with Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) seen only occasionally in deep water, and only unconfirmed sightings of Kemp’s Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys kempi) seen off Providenciales’ reefs. Green sea turtles and Leatherbacks make track marks in the sand that are symmetrical diagonal using both front flippers simultaneously, while the Hawksbills, Loggerheads and Ridleys make alternating (asymmetrical) diagonal marks with the front flippers. Variations in the shell plates (or scutes) and number are the most common means of differentiating between the different types.

Female turtles can produce over 1,000 eggs in a lifetime, but not all will hatch. Some eggs will be infertile, others lost by erosion or nest predation (by raccoons, dogs, foxes, pigs, ants and others), and some collected (often illegally) for human consumption. Once hatched, the baby turtles are immediately prey for numerous other predators, such as crabs, birds, and sharks. It is estimated that fewer than 1% of hatchlings survive to maturity.

Mature turtles are less susceptible to predation from other marine species due to their size, but humans have long been a grown turtle’s most formidable foe. Not only because of direct harvesting for consumption and trade, but accidental catches in active or abandoned fishing gear, oil spills, chemical wastes, garbage disposal in the oceans and development degradation of nesting sites and foraging grounds also pose severe threats to remaining populations.

Scientists believe (but don’t know for sure) that young turtles often live in the drift or weed lines where seaweed and other debris float on the ocean’s surface. Turtles less than a year of age cannot yet dive very deep (not more than a few inches), so living in the drift line makes sense, particularly where there is food and cover in abundance. If they get the chance to outgrow this most vulnerable life stage, 10 or so years on as they mature, they may make it back inshore to feed in protected bays, estuaries and coastal shallows.

Loggerhead turtles are mainly carnivorous throughout their life, with large heads (hence the name) and powerful jaws to crush prey. Although little is known about baby turtles in the wild, it is believed they thrive on the variety of foodstuffs found with the floating weed lines, such as tiny crabs, fish and mollusk. As their powerful jaw muscles develop, they can crack into larger prey items found as they hunt the seabeds. They are also known to feed on jellyfish, but most close their eyes to avoid the stings when they bite. While feeding at the surface, they often confuse plastic litter for jellyfish, which can block their guts and become fatal.

Taking action

Environmental education and awareness programs are one way in which important messages can be spread regarding the effects of human existence on the natural environment. Teaching future generations to have respect and regard for our natural resources is one way of helping them to ensure a future not only for themselves, but for all other creatures that help make up our living world.

With regards to sea turtles, there a number of ways that everyone can play a role in ensuring their survival:

• Don’t purchase sea turtle products, including shell or food items, jewelry or leather. International law (CITES) prevents transport of such across most national borders.

• Obey regulations regarding the protection of seagrass beds and coral reefs.

• Check fishing nets frequently to ensure sea turtles are not ensnared and drowned. Watch carefully to avoid striking turtles when operating watercraft.

• Don’t harass sea turtles whether on land or sea; don’t interfere with foraging turtles, shine lights on nesting turtles, ride turtles, disturb nests, or collect eggs and hatchlings.

• Artificial lighting can disorient nesting and hatching turtles, leading them inland and away from sea. Please turn off, shield and/or redirect coastal lighting to prevent it from shining on nesting beaches.

• Don’t drive on sandy beaches, as incubating eggs can be crushed and tire ruts can trap hatchlings on their crawl to open water.

• Don’t leave lounge chairs, sailboats or other obstructions on nesting beaches at night.

• Safeguard natural vegetation that stabilizes sandy beach habitat from erosion and provides sheltered nesting sites (preferred particularly by Hawksbills).

• Don’t litter beaches; cans and bottles can cause injury to nesting and hatching turtles.

• Don’t discard plastics and other refuse at sea; entanglement and ingestion could be fatal to turtles.

• Promote responsible best management practices with regard to size limits, seasonal closure or bans and advocate for long-term population monitoring.

• Support sustainable non-consumptive alternatives to harvest.

• Report all violations of regulations protecting sea turtles, their young, and the habitats upon which they depend for survival.

Excerpted from WIDECAST publication on the Conservation of Caribbean Sea Turtles.

As adults, sea turtles travel to traditional feeding and nesting grounds. These can be sometimes thousands of miles apart. How they navigate to these distant realms is still a mystery. It is believed that mothers return to the beach of their birth to lay their eggs. There is no hard evidence for this, but it is known that females do return to the same nesting sites time and again.

Hawksbill sea turtles are now a Critically Endangered species, primarily because of their beautiful shells. Leatherback and Kemp Ridley turtles face the same fate, but are harvested more for their meat than shells. Loggerhead, Olive Ridley and Green turtles are considered merely Endangered, meaning they face a high probability of extinction in the near future, rather than in the immediate future as is the case for the Critically Endangered. Green turtles, so named for their green fat and prized for the lovely taste, are still harvested locally in many places, regardless of any international treaties and agreements.



Leave a Reply

Comment

What's Inside The Latest Edition?

On the Cover

Agile LeVin—photographer, explorer and chronicler of everything TCI on his website www.visittci.com—took this drone photo of the multi-textured wetlands of West Caicos. He was part of the expedition that investigated the site of the historic pirate attack in the area. For more information and photos, go to page 48.

Our Sponsors

  • Fortis
  • Beaches
  • Turks and Caicos Tourism
  • Sothebys
  • South Bank
  • Turks & Caicos Property
  • Turks & Caicos Banking Co.
  • Windong
  • Projetech
  • H2O
MSOJohn Redmond
Dempsey and Companyjsjohnson
Caicos Express AirTCI Ferry
Walkin Marine Caicu Naniki
OrkinIsland Escapes TCI
Hugh ONeillTwa Marcela Wolf
Cays ConstructionKR Logistics
Pyrate RadioSWA
forbesGreen Revolution
 Blue Loos

Login

Lost your password?