Gainesville, Florida—Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) and partner scientists this week completed the first-ever deployment of satellite transmitters on five critically endangered leatherback turtles at remote Chiriquí Beach on Panama’s Caribbean coast. Lightweight telemetry harnesses were attached to the five huge leatherbacks after they had come ashore and successfully nested. With nests dug, eggs laid, and sporting high-tech backpacks, Shelldon, Idun, Cristina, Fermina and Romana headed back to the open water, each equipped to “phone home.”
When these ancient mariners “phone home” it’s not just scientists who are picking up the call. Through CCC’s internet-based Sea Turtle Migration-Tracking Education Program (www.conserveturtles.org), anyone with Internet access can follow the travels of the Chiriquí Beach leatherbacks. And as part of CCC’s Adopt-a-Turtle Program, enthusiasts can show their support by adopting one of as many as ten sea turtles being tracked right now.
“We got lucky,” says Dan Evans, Field Programs Coordinator for CCC, “We had lots of turtles nesting the first two nights, then nothing. But the last two nights, we had multiple turtles come ashore, which allowed us to deploy the final two transmitters in one night.”
The telemetry devices, which transmit signals to orbiting satellites each time a turtle comes to the surface to breath, allow scientists to monitor the migratory movements and diving behavior of sea turtles, including the five leatherbacks tagged at Chiriquí Beach.
Key to one of the world’s most important leatherback nesting colonies, with up to 14,000 nests dug annually between the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border and Central Panama, Chiriquí Beach is the focus of CCC’s latest partnership project—the Chiriquí Beach Hawksbill and Leatherback Research and Conservation Program. The project is modeled after the nonprofit’s successful long-term green turtle recovery Program in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, and includes intensive monitoring of leatherback and hawksbill nesting activity, protection of nesting females and their nests, community education and collaboration with other groups working the region.
For at least 65 million years leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, have cruised the oceans diving to depths in excess of 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) and traveling as far as 4,800 miles (7,724 kilometers) from their nesting beaches to foraging waters. Roughly the size of a VW Beetle and weighing up to 1,200 pounds, much about the life history of the leatherback remains a mystery.
Threatened on multiple fronts, including the taking of nesting females and eggs, accidental capture and killing of juveniles in commercial fishing operations, and potentially fatal ingestion of floating debris resembling the adult leatherback’s main food—jellyfish, the future of this ancient mariner is seriously in question.
“These animals have been around for millions of years, yet it is very possible that we could see them disappear in our lifetime,” says David Godfrey, Executive Director of CCC. “Urgent priorities include the reduction of leatherback by-catch in fisheries, stopping the killing of nesting females, and promoting international cooperation in leatherback conservation.”
Some sea turtle scientists have warned of the possible extinction of leatherbacks in the Pacific during the next decade. In keeping with recommendations developed at its recent Atlantic Leatherback Strategy Retreat, which brought together many of the world’s leading leatherback experts, CCC has partnered with groups like the World Wildlife Fund to extend its Caribbean Leatherback Tracking and Conservation Program to prevent a similar collapse in the Atlantic.
Initiated in 2003, the Program’s aim is to study the migratory behavior of the critically endangered leatherback and protect important nesting beaches. It is hoped that not only will the data compiled provide previously unknown information about the species but may lead to international guidelines that protect foraging areas and limit losses in commercial fisheries.