Working to understand and protect endangered sea turtles
This ResM project is part of a University of Plymouth collaboration with the non-profit organisation Ocean Spirits Inc. and St. George’s University (SGU), both situated in Grenada, West Indies, and is part-funded by the Oscar Montgomery Environmental Foundation (OMEF).
Grenada supports nesting and foraging aggregations of critically endangered hawksbill turtles and foraging aggregations of endangered green turtles. These species play an integral role within the marine ecosystem and are important to the ecotourism industry of Grenada; however, these populations are believed to be in decline consistent with worldwide trends, due to factors such as illegal and legal harvest (e.g., 7-month legal harvest season in Grenada), habitat loss and by-catch. Conservation strategies in Grenada are currently limited by a lack of detailed knowledge of the life history and migration patterns of the local aggregates of these species. 
This information is vital to turtle conservation within the region, and likely across international borders. Hence, the primary goal of this study is to provide the Grenada Fisheries Division with the necessary data to reassess current conservation policy, by analysing genetic material from individual turtles and identifying their corresponding nesting/foraging grounds and migration corridors. This will be achieved through a combination of fieldwork carried out with the Ocean Spirits team, consisting of in-water survey work and night surveys along a hawksbill turtle nesting beach, as well as periodic lab work conducted at SGU. 
All research activities by Ocean Spirits Inc. are carried out under governmental research permits provided by the Grenada Fisheries Division.

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

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Naomi Westlake - field trip to Grenada

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

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>

Week 9 – Back on the mainland

Friday was an island changeover day, so I was up early to pack up my belongings (and sort out which items could be left on the island until next week), switch out the night survey kit for the in-water kit, and to pack up our three blood samples to take back to the mainland. By about 9am, we were waiting on the rocks ready to be collected by the boat. Once it arrived, we dropped off supplies and bags as necessary, and climbed onboard for another day out on the water. We had another relatively quiet day on the boat, with just four juvenile green turtles, two of which were too small to tag. At around 1pm, we dropped off the new island team onto the rocks, and then headed back to the mainland. In the afternoon, I centrifuged the seven blood samples that we had and put them in the freezer, and then washed all my clothes from the island. 
The following day, I travelled to the south, heading straight to the lab to drop off the blood samples and started processing a batch of bloods, leaving them in the incubator overnight. On Sunday, I finished off the first batch of bloods and then ran a second batch, which meant that I managed to get through all 30 of the blood samples we had in the lab in one day. 
On Monday morning, I had a quick meeting with my Director of Studies (Dr Clare Embling) – the last one for the time being – to fill her in on the island work and the general state of the project. We had also received another delivery of project supplies, so I went back to the lab and sorted out what needed to stay at SGU and what needed to come back up north with me (two new coolers and rash guards for the team). After this, I caught an SGU bus into town and did some shopping for the island (mainly food supplies and a few bits for the new camera traps).
I managed to fit in two dives on Tuesday morning – wreck dives this time! – before being picked up from the SGU University Club at around 2pm and heading back up north. In the evening, I finished packing for the island again, and then headed up to the project house for dinner with the leatherback volunteers. I had to say most of my goodbyes after dinner as the leatherback project would be ending the following Saturday, at which point I would be back out on the remote island. Over the last five days, the island team have had three more nesting hawksbills during the night surveys (which Kate has already spun down using the island centrifuge), and they have installed the remaining camera traps and some temperature loggers along the beach. 
Wednesday this week was another changeover day; after loading the boat with additional food/water supplies and personal kit, we picked up the island team for another boat day. This time, we landed six green turtles, including two adult females and three of which were too small to tag, as well as one subadult hawksbill. With the bloods heading back to the mainland with Kate, I spent Wednesday afternoon unpacking and settling back into island life, ahead of a busy night survey that evening (three hawksbills and one false crawl!). 
On Thursday, I hiked to a bay on the other side of the island with one of the local guys; though I really enjoyed exploring the island, it was sad to see how much rubbish and debris has washed up on the eastern side, especially as we don’t have the means to clear it up and dispose of it properly.
<p>Naomi Westlake working in the laboratory.</p>
<p>Naomi Westlake researching underwater.</p>
<p>A photo of marine life.</p>
<p>Turtle research out on the boat.</p>

Week 10 – Monitoring nesting sites

The sea conditions on Friday were calm enough that we were able to make it out for a snorkel around the south side of the island. After this, I made an attempt at washing my hair using ice-water from one of the coolers, which was surprisingly refreshing and did my hair a world of good. The rest of the night surveys this week were quiet, with just one more blood sample being collected before the next changeover day. My Sunday was spent spinning down the four blood samples that we had, using our island centrifuge and generator, as well as preparing the in-water kit. 
On Monday – our next changeover day – I was up early again to pack my belongings and switch the kit, ready for our last in-water day. Our morning started off on a high note as we were greeted by a pod of dolphins on our way out! During the rest of the day, we collected data and bloods from eight green turtles, including a juvenile that was too small to tag, two subadults and a huge adult female (curved carapace length of 85.3cm) who had some fresh wounds that suggested she had been attacked by a shark recently. When I got back to the mainland in the afternoon, I spun down the day’s blood samples, stored them in the freezer with the nesting samples, and headed down to Bathway Beach for sunset (where we were joined by Prince, a local dog who often accompanies the leatherback team on their patrols along Levera Beach). 
On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, I offered to help Ed (the Ocean Spirits Project Supervisor for the 2022 season) with some leatherback nest excavations. Every year, the Ocean Spirits team aims to excavate 10% of the total number of confirmed nests from the season. This data is extremely important as it allows the team to monitor the nesting success of both individual leatherback turtles and the overall leatherback population over time, and to compare this with other countries/regions. In Grenada, the success rate is below national average (50-55%). This year, there were 178 confirmed nests, and so far, the team had only managed to excavate 12 of the 18 nests required so we had another six to get through. Over the two days, we managed to locate two more nests. However, the rest of our attempts were unsuccessful; this could be the result of heavy storms in week six washing out some nests, due to human errors in transect markers measurements, or as a result of nest poaching. 
On Tuesday night, the island team had a re-nester from our first night survey on the island (an inter-nesting period of 15 days), which was very exciting! To finish off this week, I spent Thursday completing my Annual Monitoring paperwork for my ResM – which all UoP PGR students are required to complete at the end of each academic year – and submitted this onto the UoP GradBook system.
<p>Naomi Westlake holding a turtle, standing on a boat, wit the sea behind them.</p>
<p>Monitoring turtle nesting sites on a beach.<br></p>
<p>Naomi Westlake excavating turtle nests on a beach.</p>
<p>Naomi Westlake holding a turtle egg.</p>

Week 11 – Farewell to Grenada

Heading into my final week in Grenada, I spent Friday doing some work from home and packing for the last island trip. Saturday was our changeover day this week, but as it wasn’t a boat day, we didn’t have to leave until a little later in the day. From Saturday until Tuesday on the island, we carried out night surveys as usual, but we only had one hawksbill nest successfully over the 4 nights. Though we were seeing other turtles approaching the beach, a lot of Sargassum seaweed had washed up along the shoreline, and this seemed to be resulting in false crawls instead of successful nests. Because of this, and the fact that we had to be up early on Thursday morning to pack up camp, we decided not to do a night survey on Wednesday evening. On Wednesday afternoon, I spun down our final few blood samples using the island centrifuge and stored them in one of the coolers.Thursday was a very long day: after packing up our personal belongings, the tents, our research supplies and the kitchen area first thing in the morning, we carried everything across the rocks to get picked up by the boat at 11:00am. 
<p>Naomi Westlake,&nbsp;Sargassum seaweed washed up along the shoreline.</p>

 

<p>Naomi Westlake, dinner with Ruth</p>
<p>Naomi Westlake, DNA analysis</p>
<p>Naomi Westlake, final samples</p>
<p>Naomi Westlake, Extracted DNA samples</p>
Once we got back to the mainland, we loaded everything into the bus and took it back to Kate’s house, where we unpacked and washed all the kit, ready to be stored away until next season. Later in the afternoon, I washed my clothes from the island and packed up all my belongings at Kate’s house, in preparation to leave the north the following day. On Friday morning, Dave kindly collected me from Kate’s house and drove me down south, first to the SGU University Club to drop off my belongings, and then to the lab to run a batch of blood samples. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get through the last 13 blood samples, but once these have been processed by one of the SGU team, Dave will begin the CITES paperwork that is required to send all 114 of our extracted DNA samples to the University of Georgia (USA) for further processing (PCR, sequencing and haplotype analysis) – very exciting! In the evening, I met with one of the leatherback volunteers Ruth (who also happened to be in St. George’s) for dinner, which was a lovely way to spend my last night in Grenada. 
On Saturday, I checked out from the SGU University Club in the morning and headed to the lab to wrap things up, before meeting Ruth again for a ‘goodbye’ lunch. I then spent my final hour or so relaxing at the beach before Dr Clare Morrall (Ocean Spirits President) kindly drove me to Maurice Bishop International Airport for my flight in the evening. Despite an hour’s delay, my flight went well, and I landed safely in St Lucia, where I will be spending the next couple of weeks on leave before returning to Plymouth!
I am so incredibly grateful for the experience I have had in Grenada and for all that I have learned over the last 11 weeks. A huge thank you to Kate, Kester and the rest of the Ocean Spirits team for all their hard work, for the time they spent training me and for welcoming into the team.
Also, a big thank you to my supervisors Dr Dave Marancik (SGU), Dr Clare Embling (UoP) and Professor Martin Attrill (UoP) for their support both prior to and throughout the trip, and to the Oscar Montgomery Environmental Foundation for their generosity and support, without which my trip would not have been possible. Though I am sad that my time in Grenada has come to an end, I am very much looking forward to the next steps of my ResM: two modules, receiving our bloodwork results, data analysis and the final write-up!

Marine biology

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