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The Incredible Journey

Suzie the celebrity Green turtle comes home after a 3,700 mile trip!
By Peter B. Richardson, Marine Conservation Society (MCS)

Suzie the celebrity Green turtle comes home after a 3,700 mile trip!

By Peter B. Richardson, Marine Conservation Society (MCS)

On January 27, 2010, Suzie, an adult female Green turtle and the first turtle to be fitted with a satellite transmitter in the Turks & Caicos Islands, returned to her feeding grounds off the north coast of East Caicos. It was the end of a 6,000 kilometre (nearly 3,730 mile) migration that took her to seven other Caribbean countries in just under five months.

Suzie the green turtle

Suzie the green turtle

Suzie was captured and landed for the pot by a South Caicos fisher on June 24, 2009. Staff of the Turks & Caicos Islands Turtle Project bought her and later that evening fitted a satellite transmitter to the top of her shell. The project is a collaboration between local and international partners and is carrying out research into TCI’s turtle populations and turtle fishery. The project had brought several satellite tags to the Islands, which, when fitted to the shells of turtles, allow researchers to track the animals’ daily movements via the Internet. Through this satellite tagging study, the TCI Turtle Project aims to reveal new insights into the range of adult Green and Hawksbill turtles found in TCI waters.

After her release on the north coast of East Caicos on June 25, close to where she was originally captured, Suzie made her first foray in the media, with local newspapers announcing the first study of its kind in the TCI. For two months, project staff checked her daily tracking maps online, but somewhat disappointingly, she stayed amongst the inshore patch reefs and sea grass beds close to East Caicos. Project field officer Amdeep Sanghera and DECR’s Tommy Philips surveyed several kilometres of the East Caicos beaches close to where she was transmitting. They hoped to find evidence of nesting, but found none, and so each day they checked her maps online and waited for her to do something.

Then, on September 1, she made her move away from the TCI. She headed southeast and those following her progress had no idea where she was going or what she was doing as they watched scientific discovery unfold each day on their computer screens. By early October she had swum directly to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and then on to Anguilla, and because, like the TCI, these are UK Overseas Territories, Suzie made the news again. Her passage through the islands was excitedly announced in both the BVI and Anguilla press, but her story had already travelled further than the Caribbean. In the UK, The Times hailed her as an “anglophile Green turtle,” while The Daily Telegraph and The Metro newspapers respectively claimed that her journey through three consecutive UK Overseas Territories hundreds of kilometres apart had left scientists baffled and dumbfounded! The BBC’s online news pages featured more sober reporting, including photos of Suzie, a map of her journey and a link to the Seaturtle.org online tracking site. This was excellent coverage and led to the story featuring on at least 25 other online news sites from around the world.

Suzie's migration path

Suzie's migration path

But this was merely the beginning of Suzie’s journey and she soon moved on, arriving in Barbuda’s waters on October 8. There she remained for two weeks and, unlike anywhere else on her route, her tracking data strongly suggested that she attempted nesting during the nights of October 17 and 18 on the beaches of Low Bay. Intriguingly, Antiguan researchers carried out a boat-based beach survey of Low Bay a few days later. They found fresh Green turtle tracks close to the emergence locations indicated by the satellite tracking data, but could not confirm whether the nesting attempt was successful. Suzie made the local press again and Antiguan bloggers claimed that because she may have nested on Barbuda, Suzie had come back to her birthplace. Her followers expectantly waited to see if she would nest again on Low Bay, but instead, Suzie left Barbuda on October 22. She headed east and then south, stopping at Martinique for just five days, where she generated yet more local press coverage, before swimming west into the deep Caribbean Sea. Now her followers were truly puzzled — where was she going?

After 24 days of swimming non-stop across the Caribbean Sea, inspiring much speculation about her final destination, Suzie took a turn northwards and eventually arrived at the southwestern tip of Haiti on December 2. Those in South Caicos following her journey suspected that she was now trying to get back home to TCI and predicted she would continue northwest. Surprisingly, instead of taking the more direct northwest route to TCI, she headed due east, and started swimming close inshore along the southern coast of Hispaniola. Fingers were crossed, hoping that she would survive the fishers’ nets en route, and a month later she eventually rounded the southeast tip of the Dominican Republic. South Caicos fishers talked of her imminent return, and when it looked like she might finally be coming back to TCI, she swam west to Great Inagua, Bahamas, her eighth country en route, where she tantalisingly remained for two more weeks. Suzie finally started swimming away from Inagua on January 22, and by the next day she had made it to North West Point, Providenciales, after a 145 day long journey. She spent the next four days swimming along the north coast of the Caicos Islands before arriving safe and sound off East Caicos on January 27.

The fact that Suzie’s journey could be tracked online every day at Seaturtle.org generated unprecedented interest and enthusiasm for the project along the way, especially in South Caicos. Amdeep and Tommy’s team kept residents there up to date by regularly displaying her most recent maps in bars, supermarkets, the airport and other public places around the island. They were often stopped in the street to be asked “Where Suzie at?” and seasoned TCI turtle fishers have been amazed to learn that their turtles travel so far. Some have even stated that Suzie has made them think differently about the management of their fishery.

The project team hopes to maintain this interest through the online tracking of four adult Hawksbill turtles that have also been fitted with satellite tags and released back into TCI waters. These turtles have a hard act to follow. Suzie’s journey may be the longest satellite tracked Green turtle migration recorded in the Caribbean, a fascinating journey that not only raised the profile of her species in the region, but also raised several questions, with perhaps the most perplexing being, “Did she really migrate 6,000 kms to lay just one clutch of eggs?”

You too can track the other TCI turtles online at  www.seaturtle.org/tracking/?project_id=398 and the DECR respectfully requests anyone encountering any turtles fitted with satellite transmitters in TCI waters to please leave them alone and report them to Project Officer Amdeep Sanghera on 649 332 8325.

Adapted from an article by Peter Richardson and co-authors that first appeared in the Marine Turtle Newsletter (www.seaturtle.org/mtn) in February 2010.

The Turtles in the Turks & Caicos Islands Project is a collaboration between the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources and the School for Field Studies in TCI, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and the University of Exeter in the UK and Duke University in the USA. It is funded by MCS Ambassadors Anne and Simon Notley, the Natural Environment Research Council and the project partners. The satellite telemetry study is funded by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the British Chelonia Group. The authors would like to thank our colleagues in the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Martinique and elsewhere for their generous help, information and advice offered along the way. We would especially like to thank Dr. Michael Coyne for his tireless efforts working with Seaturtle.org and STAT, without which Suzie’s incredible journey would not have been so accessible to so many.



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