Working to understand and protect endangered sea turtles

Influencing conservation in action

Researchers in the UK and Grenada are exploring the challenges and threats facing hawksbill sea turtles and green sea turtles. As part of the project, ResM student Naomi Westlake is spending time in Grenada, carrying out research in the field and lab and meeting organisations and people who encounter the endangered turtle species on a daily basis.

Read more about the project and Naomi's passion for the ocean:

<p>A hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) - picture by Kate Charles, Ocean Spirits Inc<br></p>

Week 1 – Arriving in Grenada and settling in

Having landed safely at Grenada’s Maurice Bishop International Airport, I was picked up by my St George’s University supervisor Dr Dave Marancik. The first couple of days were spent settling in and familiarising myself with my accommodation, the local area and the SGU campus. I stayed at the SGU University Club, which has a free bus service to and from campus. Dave trained me on blood collection methodology as well as DNA extraction and quantification, and within a few days I had adapted an existing protocol and was able to start working independently. We started off by processing DNA samples that were collected during the 2021 OMEF-funded pilot project, and are already getting some nice usable results. At the end of my first week, Dave drove me to the north of the island to meet the Ocean Spirits team in person, and to get settled in as this will be where I will be spending the majority of my time. I’m now really looking forward to meeting the rest of the team – and some turtles!

<p>The SGU Aquatic Animal Medicine Research Lab<br></p>

The Aquatic Animal Medicine Research Lab at St George's University

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Naomi Westlake - field trip to Grenada

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Naomi Westlake - field trip to Grenada

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Naomi Westlake - field trip to Grenada

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Week 2 – A brief introduction to turtles

After a bumpy ride through the rainforest, I safely arrived at the Ocean Spirits base in the north of the island. Very shortly after arriving, Kate (Project Manager and Coordinator for Ocean Spirits) received a call about a green turtle stranding nearby, so we immediately ventured out to find it and determine the cause of death.
In the evening, I was shown around Kate’s house (where I will be staying during my time with Ocean Spirits) and the project house, which is situated just opposite and houses the leatherback research volunteers. The project house has a beautiful view of the islands from the balcony, and is where we usually eat a vegetarian dinner. Saturday and Sunday were spent settling in, and working with Kate to get the sampling data from the 2021 blood samples.

<p>The&nbsp;project house, which houses the leatherback research volunteers

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The project house which is home to the leatherback research volunteers

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Naomi Westlake - field trip to Grenada<br></p>
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Naomi Westlake - field trip to Grenada

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Naomi Westlake - field trip to Grenada

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From Monday, I began my field training by participating in night patrols for the long-term leatherback sea turtle programme that Ocean Spirits has been running since 2001, alongside the research volunteers and Grenadian supervisors. The night patrols run from 8pm until 6am every night, so we are lucky enough to see the sunrise on a regular basis. After three shifts, I’ve seen seven leatherbacks as well as the season’s first few hatchlings!
The rest of my free time during the week has been spent exploring the local area, beaching, hiking, and swimming in waterfalls. We are still waiting for most of our research supplies to arrive in Grenada before we can head out to camp on the remote uninhabited island (the hawksbill nesting site), but we are hoping to start our in-water work next week!

<p>A sunrise at the end of a night patrol</p>

A sunrise at the end of a night patrol

Week 3 – Starting the collection process

On Saturday, I began preparing the kit for our in-water work, which we are hoping to start next week. This involved labelling blood collection tubes, packing syringes into resealable plastic bags, preparing notebook data sheets, and typing up our blood sample centrifugation protocol.
In the evening, Kate led an in-water training session for the Ocean Spirits volunteers, as there may be occasional opportunities for them to join us on the boat. Unfortunately, a tropical depression passing through the area meant that we couldn’t start the in-water work on Monday as planned, but we made it out on Thursday – 2022 blood sample collection is officially underway!
We collected data from two hawksbill turtles (one of which was an adult female who is most likely already nesting in the area), and six green turtles. Whilst we were on the boat, we also stopped off at the remote uninhabited island to install two camera traps, look for signs of turtle activity and look for any turtle remains. Once we were back on the mainland, I centrifuged the blood samples (so that we have both whole blood and blood plasma samples), ready to take to the SGU lab.
The rest of the week was filled with leatherback night patrols, a ResM supervisory meeting (with Kate, Dave and my Plymouth supervisors Dr Clare Embling and Dr Martin Attrill), and helping the volunteers replace some of the transect markers along Levera Beach.
<p>Naomi Westlake<br></p>
<p>Naomi Westlake<br></p>
<p>Naomi Westlake<br></p>
<p>Naomi Westlake<br></p>

Week 4 – Sampling the science and surroundings

Friday was a little different this week, as it was the birthday of one of the volunteers. So we all spent the day on a nearby island as a treat. The day was spent walking the perimeter of the island, birdwatching, snorkelling, reading, sunbathing, and eating a delicious meal of ‘Oil Down’ (Grenada’s national dish) kindly cooked for us by a few of the local guys – a relaxing day all round.
On Saturday, we said goodbye to one of the volunteers and later greeted five new arrivals, which was followed by a Sea Turtle Biology training session from Kate on Sunday morning. Good weather on Tuesday meant that we were able to make it out for another in-water day, during which we collected data on another seven turtles (including our first two adult male hawksbills of the season).

<p>Naomi Westlake</p>
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Naomi Westlake

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Naomi Westlake

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Naomi Westlake

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Naomi Westlake

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Once we got back from the boat, I then ran through our blood sample centrifugation protocol with Kate. On Wednesday, our first small batch of camping supplies arrived at SGU, which warranted a trip to the south of the island.
After collecting this from Dave, we gave him the blood samples we have collected so far so he could store them in the SGU lab, and we then visited various stores throughout St George’s to purchase some other camping supplies – one step closer to making it out to the remote island!
Free time this week was spent on a leatherback night patrol, exploring Levera lake which is surrounded by mangroves, watching a local football match, and visiting the Belmont chocolate plantation (very educational and very tasty chocolate!).

<p>Naomi Westlake</p>

Week 5 – Exploring marine life

This week, we were able to carry out another two (very hot!) days of in-water work. On Friday, we collected data from four adult hawksbills and an infrequent juvenile hawksbill (which was sadly missing one of its rear flippers), whereas Monday was a quieter day with just four turtles. Saturday was another unique day: the whole Ocean Spirits team spent the morning on Grand Anse beach in the south of the island, and were involved in running a public event for kids in celebration of World Ocean Day alongside the local dive shop Eco Dive. Activities included body-painting and temporary tattoos of marine animals, searching for small critters within trays of seaweed (Sargassum sp.), and a sandcastle competition where the children had to create a marine organism of their choosing and present two fun facts about the organism at the end (prizes were up for grabs!).
On Saturday afternoon, we were also offered the opportunity to snorkel at the underwater sculpture part or dive with Eco Dive, before heading back up north – I ended up diving on a nearby reef, and was lucky enough to see two octopi, a seahorse, a big sea cucumber, a scorpionfish, two slipper lobsters and a spotted moray eel, to name a few critters! On Tuesday, we said goodbye to three of the leatherback project volunteers, so I travelled down to the south with them, blood samples in tow, and was dropped at SGU. Tuesday afternoon and the following two days were spent in SGU’s Aquatic Animal Medicine Research Lab, re-labelling 2021 microcentrifuge tubes with our new coding system and processing blood samples (DNA extraction, quantification, and quality check). During my visit to the south, I was also fortunate enough to see some lovely sunsets, as SGU’s University Club (where I stay) is west-facing.
<p>Naomi Westlake</p>
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Naomi Westlake

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Naomi Westlake

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Naomi Westlake

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Week 6 – Surveying and storms

As I had made my way through almost all of the blood samples over the previous few days in the lab, I was able to have a day off in the south on Friday. I ended up eating lunch at Grand Anse beach, where I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, swimming and audiobooking. The following day, two of the Ocean Spirits volunteers were signed up for a Discover Scuba Dive with Eco Dive, and so the instructor kindly allowed me to tag along with them. 
The three of us then travelled back up to the north in the afternoon, and I worked the leatherback night survey later that evening. Monday was another relatively quiet in-water day with just four turtles, though we landed an adult female hawksbill for a second time that we had tagged only the week before. 
A series of tropical depressions then passed through the area over the next few days, resulting in heavy rain and winds of up to 50mph. Because of this, I decided to move into the leatherback project house for two days, allowing for communal dinners, a couple of movie nights and late-night snacks with the volunteers as entertainment. 
Unfortunately, the poor weather also meant that our in-water day was cancelled on Wednesday, so I did some work from home instead, and prepared for my six-month ResM supervisory meeting, which I had on Thursday morning. My parents also landed in Grenada on Wednesday night for a week-long trip, and so once they arrived in the north on Thursday afternoon, we went to Belmont Estate for lunch and a tour of the chocolate plantation.
<p>Grand Anse Beach<br></p>
<p>Flamingo tongue snail<br></p>
<p>Pillar coral colony and hermit crab<br></p>
<p>Fireworms<br></p>

Week 7 – Training volunteers and preparing for an island expedition

Poor weather and busy schedules meant that we were unable to rearrange our second in-water day from earlier this week. Though this was disappointing, it did open up my schedule to be able to spend some time with my parents. The next few days were jam-packed with a rainy hike and swim at Concord Falls, beaching, scuba diving, hiking the trail around Grand Etang Lake, and running a few small errands in the south. 
Our evenings were spent either eating out or at the project house with Kate and the new team of leatherback volunteers, heading to a local bar for karaoke night, and a leatherback night survey (during which my parents were lucky enough to see a female laying). In the meantime, the rest of our camping and research supplies arrived on the island, so Kate and Kester (Ocean Spirits Field Manager) travelled down to SGU to collect them and drop off any new blood samples to the lab. 
This meant that on Tuesday, Kate and I spent the morning organising and packing up the camping and research supplies into totes, with the afternoon then spent in a nest excavation training session with the leatherback volunteers. I joined my parents for one last dinner in the evening, as they were travelling to the south and flying home the next day. On Wednesday, we made it out for another in-water day (five green turtles and two hawksbills), which was followed by centrifugation of blood samples, as usual. 
Now that we have our supplies, the plan is to head out to the remote island on Sunday; hence, on Thursday, Kate and I travelled to Grenville (Grenada’s second largest city) to buy plenty of food for the island, with the hope of just having to top up certain items occasionally. When we got back, we sorted and packed the kitchen and food supplies into totes, ready for Sunday.
<p>Naomi Westlake at Concord Falls, Grenada<br></p>
<p>Zooanthid coral colony<br></p>
<p>Diving equipment beside blue ocean<br></p>
<p>Octopus hiding among coral<br></p>

Week 8 – Living and working on a remote island

On Friday afternoon, I tagged along with the leatherback volunteers to assist with some nest excavations along Levera beach; my role was mainly to observe and write down the data to give the volunteers a more hands-on learning experience, as they will be carrying out excavations over the next few weeks. In preparation for the remote island, Saturday was spent finishing off some last-minute tasks, such as washing out our water containers and packing my personal belongings for camping. On Sunday morning, we packed up the bus with all our supplies, travelled to a local beach to load up the boat and meet with the rest of the team, and headed across to the remote island. As we arrived, we had to carry everything across a stretch of volcanic rock (quite wobbly work!), which took a little time and a lot of teamwork. 
Once we reached the hawksbill nesting site, Kate and I spent the rest of the day pitching tents, building a kitchen area, hanging washing lines and hammocks, and unpacking and reorganising research and food supplies. With our camp being so close to the shore, there was very little shelter from the elements, so the local guys were busy setting up tarps to shelter us from the rain and building a sort of windbreak with palm leaves on the far side of the kitchen. We then headed for a walk down the beach to carry out a quick track survey (looking for any signs of recent turtle activity) and saw our first hawksbill, though she soon returned to the sea without attempting to nest (called a ‘false crawl’). 
By the time we had finished, we were all quite tired and hungry, so we cooked a simple dinner and headed to bed relatively early after a long day. For the next four weeks, there will be four team members on the island at a time, conducting night surveys every night, with the team being rotated every five days. Monday was spent finding my bearings, unpacking and getting comfortable, before carrying out our first night survey. Similar to the leatherback night surveys, we worked in pairs, heading out on alternating shifts between about 7:30pm and 1:30am, though this tended to vary a little based on the turtle activity. Over the next four nights, we managed to collect data and blood samples from three nesting hawksbills and recorded additional activities from our morning track surveys (conducted between 6:00am and 7:00am every day). 
Having been very lucky with the weather, my days have been spent reading, exploring the area, snorkelling, and topping up the night survey kit where necessary. Foodwise, we eat something simple for breakfast and lunch, and have been eating various curry, pasta and soup dishes for dinner, with the local guys going freediving every day to catch fresh fish (we were spoiled with mackerel one evening!). After meals, we wash up our pots and utensils in a bucket using saltwater and then give them a quick rinse in the sea, as we need to save our limited freshwater for drinking and cooking. All in all, a great start to the island work! 
<p>Turtle nest excavation<br></p>
<p>Remote island sunset<br></p>
<p>Remote island palm trees<br></p>
<p>Remote island camp<br></p>

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