In 2003, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation launched a new project to protect the hawksbill sea turtle nesting population at Chiriquí Beach in the Bocas del Toro Province of Panama (Velador Issue 2, 2003). Chiriquí Beach is a remote beach on Panama’s Caribbean shore and was once described by Dr. Archie Carr as the most important nesting beach in the Caribbean for hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). However, by the 1980s and 1990s, sporadic aerial and ground surveys suggested that nesting had declined as much as 98% from previous levels. The decline was attributed in large part to the extensive harvest of nesting hawksbills to support the international trade in tortoiseshell.
While the primary focus of CCC’s Chiriquí Beach Project was the initiation of a long-term hawksbill monitoring and protection program, the project also includes the satellite tracking of post-nesting female hawksbill sea turtles. In 2003, satellite transmitters were attached to two hawksbills. One headed northwest to coral reefs off the coast of Nicaragua, while the other headed northeast to reefs south of Jamaica.
In 2004, one satellite transmitter was attached to a hawksbill named “Merigö.” About a hundred local school children came out to watch the release of Merigö, while children all over the world would be able to watch her migration over the Internet. Unfortunately, ten days after Merigö’s release, researchers began receiving very high quality location signals and no dive data, both uncommon for sea turtles that spend most of their time underwater. Researchers decided that Merigö was on land and had probably been killed or captured.
The location signals suggested that the transmitter was at Cayo de Agua, located 30 miles north of Chiriquí Beach. Natalia Decastro, a former CCC Research Assistant now working with Drs. Anne and Peter Meylan on Zapatilla Cay, Panama, met up with Daniel Castillo from Panama’s National Environment Authority to travel to Cayo de Agua in search of Merigö.
They found the remains of Merigö and the transmitter! The hawksbill had been caught and was about to be eaten by an indigenous family living at Cayo de Agua. According to the wife, her husband had caught the turtle while diving at the south eastern end of Cayo de Agua. It was roasting over the fire as Natalia arrived. After much convincing, Natalia managed to recover the transmitter, still sending signals, from the roof of the family’s home, where it had been thrown after being removed from Merigö’s shell.
“I went the next day to talk with the fisherman about Merigö,” said Decastro. “He told me he caught the turtle to use for meat, not for its shell. He said that he was keeping the shell until someone could try to sell it in Cayo de Agua. A situation that doesn’t happen very often.”
The recovered transmitter was attached to another hawksbill, named “Señorita Chiriquí,” on October 7, 2004. Perhaps Señorita Chiriquí will survive long enough to return to Chiriquí Beach in a year or two and once again be observed by beach monitors. You can follow the migration of Señorita Chiriquí.