Saving Sea Turtle Reefs in Ecuador

Latest update December 20, 2018 Started on November 15, 2018
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All sea turtle species are endangered. Both the Endangered Green (Chelonia mydas) and the Critically Endangered Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) nest and forage in important beaches and reefs of the Machalilla National Park in Ecuador. We want to learn and protect these places.

November 15, 2018
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Preparation

OUR EQUIPMENT Reloaded


So after getting down from a ship and sitting down in our laptop we found a series of emails from the OpenROV SEE Initiative telling us that we are getting a Trident!! We are just figuring out how to bring it down to Ecuador and hopefully in a couple of weeks we will be learning how to use it. We are really happy and already listing all the places we will go with this new tool.

This is a tool that many of us have been dreaming about for many years and finally someone has done it. Congratulations to the OpenROV team for this product and many thanks to National Geographic, OpenROV and the SEE Initiative for trusting us and our work.

We will be sharing lot's of content and discoveries with this new addition to our fleet, so keep following us.

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OUR EQUIPMENT (3)


TAGGING: we use INCONEL flipper tags with a unique code to tag the animals in their flippers; these tags have been used for decades in this type of projects. A couple of years ago we started using PIT tags in hawksbill sea turtles, they have an electronic identification code that can be read with a scanner and theoretically will stay in the animal for life. We are using these same tags in several countries in the Eastern Pacific, part of a project with ICAPO (the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative) so we can ID sea turtles that have been tagged all along the continent (more info at www.hawksbill.org)..)

DIVING: most of our work is done aboard our boats, and many times it takes place in the water (and underwater). We use Cressi snorkeling and SCUBA diving equipment for this important (and fun!) part.

So, this is some of the equipment we use, it is very important for our work but the most important part, the people, is coming in a next update. Keep following us!

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OUR EQUIPMENT (2)


TRACKING EQUIPMENT: we use a Vemco VR100 acoustic receiver with two different hydrophones (69Hz and 180Hz) and different models of Vemco continuos and coded tags to follow the animals in water. We use Wildlife Computers and Sirtrack Argos satellite transmitters to follow long range migrations. We also use a PacificGyre drifter to measure superficial ocean currents.

MAPPING: our UAV (drone) is a DJI Phantom 3 Pro, we use it for aerial maps of the nesting beaches. We are also experimenting with it for reef monitoring but so far we haven't had very good results because our water is not very clear. For reef mapping we will be using a Garmin EchoMap chartplotter with sideVu and downVu transducer. We also want to do orthomosaics and 3D maps of the reefs but we still don't have all the equipment needed for this.

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OUR EQUIPMENT (1)
(*will post in a thread due to restrictions on number of photographs per post)

We want to share with you some of the equipment we will be using throughout this expedition, some of it very basic and some a little bit more advanced. We list some with photographs below:

OUR BOATS: we have two, one is the "Esperanza", a 6 meter fiberglass boat with two 50HP outboard engines. This one we use almost every day, for short excursions to monitor reefs and lay the BRUVs and for long (up to 72 hours) acoustic tracking of sea turtles and other marine animals (it doesn't have a cabin so we usually get very wet at night). The other is the "Achilles", an inflatable with a 25HP outboard that we will use when following hatchlings and for remote expeditions since it is very portable and can be carried almost anywhere (in our pickup truck).

MEASURING EQUIPMENT: flexible tape measures, digital scales (for hatchlings), bigger scales (for adults), LED head lamps (red light that doesn't bother sea turtles) and calipers to measure them.

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REEF MONITORING


As part of our research we monitor the reefs in different ways, today we will show you one of them.

It's called Baited Remote Underwater Video or BRUV, and it consists of a metal frame with an attached underwater video camera that is set on the ocean floor (in our case between 7 and 40 meters deep). It has a basket with a small amount of bait in front of the camera that will attract elasmobranchs that are swimming close by. It is mainly used to monitor the abundance of sharks and rays but we have found that it is also a great tool to monitor the abundance of certain sea turtle species, specially Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) that are very curious and get attracted by our cameras.

As part of our project we have been setting this cameras in different reefs for more than a year now and the videos are so good that we are able to not only count the numbers of sea turtles but, using screen captures of their face, are able to identify each individual sea turtle that appears in the footage (with a technique called photo identification).

In the video below, from the joint project with our colleagues from Global FinPrint (www.globalfinprint.org),,) you can see one of the curious greens I told you about in the Isla de la Plata, one of the most important aggregation sites for this specie in the Eastern Pacific Ocean of South America.

NESTING BEACHES


So we have been monitoring the most important nesting beaches in our area for 10 years in some cases. This has given us some important information about the local sea turtle populations and their main threats, but, believe it or not, this is not enough time when you are studying such long living species as sea turtles.

Making everything more complicated, these nesting beaches are changing, a lot, because of this new thing called climate change (although there are still some important people saying that it is not real!). We are trying to monitor this change in our nesting beaches by making aerial maps with UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or "drones") periodically so we can see what is happening and try to predict what is going to happen to them and how this could affect the already threatened sea turtles. Here you can see some images from two years ago of two of our most important hawksbill sea turtle nesting beaches, La Playita and Playa Dorada. We are trying to replicate this maps every 6 months to monitor change.

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Expedition Background

All sea turtle species are endangered. Both the Endangered Green (Chelonia mydas) and the Critically Endangered Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) nest and forage in important beaches and reefs of the Machalilla National Park in Ecuador. We have been protecting the nesting beaches for 10 years and have helped more than 50.000 thousand neonates safely reach the sea. We are also monitoring the nesting beaches using UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to see what is happening with climate change and allowing us to prepare for the future nesting grounds.


We now want to help them in their next life stages, after they leave the nest. For this we have to know more about them, where do they go, what do they do, when do they come back to the home reefs? We will start by mapping the reefs using sonar technology and ultimately 3D imaging technology, to better monitor the changes that are happening in these foraging grounds. We also want to get deeper in the reefs (we can only SCUBA dive up to 40 meters) using ROVs that will let us see what lies beyond (up to 100 meters and beyond) for the first time in this area. We will then follow the animal movements by attaching transmitters that will allow us to see their voyages, letting us know what are the most important places to protect. This is a long term project that has already began and that will take us to new grounds using novel technologies and techniques. There are many other species sharing these reefs (you will also see them here!), so by protecting them for sea turtles we will protect them for all. We want to share this exciting project with everybody out there!

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What kind of trackers will you attach to the hatchlings?

Hi Michelle, thank you for your question. We will be using both acoustic and satellite transmitters to follow the sea turtle movements.

AWESOME! Are they PIT tags or will they be attached to the flippers? I have done some work here in Grenada with leatherbacks and the hatchlings are so tiny I can imagine attaching a tracker will be...interesting! :-)

Hi Michelle, sorry for the delay. For hatchlings we will use tiny acoustic tags that are actually carried by a float that is attached to the baby turtle using velcro! It is super cool, we will let you see so keep following us. Thanks!

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