Working together to study sea turtles: a citizen science success story

By Kayla Hamelin

The Canadian Sea Turtle Network is a Halifax-based environmental charity that works to study and conserve endangered sea turtles in Canadian waters and beyond, with a particular focus on the leatherback sea turtle. This is actually quite a tall order. First of all, leatherback turtles are enormous – about 2m long and tipping the scales at 400kg on average. They are also the most wide-ranging reptile, travelling tens of thousands of kilometres between northern foraging areas in Atlantic Canada that host large seasonal aggregations of jellyfish (their favourite food), and tropical nesting beaches throughout Latin America and the Caribbean where they lay their eggs. When they are here in Canadian waters, they spend the summer months just offshore, feeding, out of sight (and, sometimes, out of mind) of most Canadians. Up until about 20 years ago, the sea turtle science community believed the leatherback to be a tropical animal and thought any animals found in our waters were here by mistake. But local coastal community members in our region knew the leatherbacks were here, particularly the fishers of Atlantic Canada. And as scientists interested in studying these turtles in the north, we needed their help!

It was out of a collaboration between our scientists and Atlantic Canadian fishers and coastal community members that the Canadian Sea Turtle Network was born in 1998. Initially, we launched a citizen science project encouraging fishers and other mariners to call in sea turtle sightings. Thousands of confirmed sightings later, it is clear that Atlantic Canada is an important part of the leatherback’s habitat. In fact, during the summer months, we host more foraging leatherbacks than almost anywhere else on earth. By taking the time to write down a few observations and take a few photos for us, regular citizens changed our global understanding of these gentle giants. Local fishers continue to be our most important research partners, and we’ve combined our scientific know-how with their practical skills working at sea to do ground-breaking work capturing and tagging leatherbacks, allowing us to document their jellyfish feeding and long-distance migrations in real-time.

Although our research program has now expanded considerably, we continue to accept sightings from citizen scientists (like you!) HERE, which helps us to keep track of when the turtles arrive in, and depart from, our waters. In fact, “turtle season” is upon us, with most leatherbacks entering the coastal waters of Atlantic Canada in late June to early July, and making their way into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then to Newfoundland and Labrador later in the summer. We encourage anyone on the water this summer to keep their eyes peeled for a shiny turtle head popping up or the splash of water streaming off of the ridges of its carapace as it surfaces to breathe. 

As it turns out, leatherbacks are not the only sea turtles to spend time in Canadian waters. While they are the most common species in our coastal waters due to their tolerance of cold water, we have juvenile loggerhead sea turtles which come up to forage in our warm, offshore waters associated with the Gulf Stream. Even the occasional juvenile Atlantic ridley or green turtle makes its way this far north. Unfortunately, we most commonly interact with these smaller “hard-shelled” sea turtles later in the late fall when an occasional tiny juvenile washes up on a local beach, stunned by the cold. Usually they have succumbed to their hypothermia by the time we find them, but occasionally they are still alive and candidates for rehabilitation.

We are interested in putting more effort into searching for, and documenting, stranded turtles, including these juvenile green and ridley turtles. We have turned to the public once again for their help. As animals with a preference for warmer waters, these events are generally few and far between, but it is amazing what we can discover if we take the time to look.  After all, not so long ago, we believed the same thing about the leatherback turtle! We can’t monitor every beach in Atlantic Canada all year by ourselves. But we know there are many nature-loving citizens who live on the coast and can keep an eye out for us. About a dozen such volunteers participated in our Sea Turtle Beach Patrol program last fall, monitoring local beaches around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for stranded turtles. Although only one hard-shelled turtle was found stranded last year (a loggerhead turtle on the Northumberland shore of New Brunswick), we were thrilled to have so many boots on the ground, and our volunteers seemed to enjoy the excuse to spend more time in nature. We are planning to run this volunteer opportunity as an annual program and are looking forward to collaborating with our friends in coastal communities around the region again this year.

Sea turtles are largely solitary animals. Leatherbacks, in particular, swim the world’s oceans solo, save for brief mating periods. Imagine their lives – swimming endlessly for decades, alone in a vast, watery world. But as leatherback researchers, we can’t succeed in our work on our own. We would love for you to help. To learn more, or for more information on how to get involved, please visit seaturtle.ca or drop by our Canadian Sea Turtle Centre kiosk at the Halifax waterfront.

 

Originally from the shores of Georgian Bay, Kayla grew up with a love of water, but her specific interest in the ocean and its creatures was sparked at a young age after a family trip to the Maritimes. Post-secondary studies led her back to the Atlantic coast, where she completed a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Marine Biology and Oceanography at Dalhousie University, and to the Redpath Museum in Montreal, where she earned a Master of Science in Biology from McGill University. Now, Kayla is the Coordinator of Conservation and Educational Outreach at the Canadian Sea Turtle Network in Halifax. Her work allows her to combine her background in science research with her passion for science outreach to help study and conserve the sea turtles that migrate to Atlantic Canada each summer. She enjoys going to sea on the leatherback field boat, working with citizen scientists, and welcoming visitors to the Canadian Sea Turtle Centre.