Tagging 30 turtles across the Gulf each year is no mean feat. Even after three years of studying the creatures’ habits, and three annual Great Gulf Turtle Races, the Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF was still at the mercy of a number of variables as it prepared for this year’s event.
‘You never know how long you’re going to be out in the field before you get the turtles you’re expecting,’ explains Lisa Perry, programme director at EWS-WWF. ‘They don’t always show up when you want them to.’ As part of the project, for the past three years the team has tagged up to 30 turtles, then organised a ‘race’ in which each turtle is sponsored by a different local company. The idea is to see which turtle swims the furthest – as well as raising the profile of the EWS-WWF’s work.
Lisa notes that with a project like this, the challenges always tend to occur during the field work itself, and the run-up to this year’s race – which reached its climax (for spectators, at least) on Thursday July 12 – was no different. ‘One of the challenges this year has been the weather. When we were in Oman, we were actually evacuated from the first island we were on because of severe storms. Obviously that delays the tagging process, then not only are we dealing with different stakeholders and governments – and even boat companies – which can be very tricky, but then you’ve got the turtles themselves, worrying about whether they’re going to turn up.’
Nevertheless, following the first month of observation (during which the turtle race was held), the organisation’s researchers are already collecting information transmitted from the tagged turtles. ‘During these first few months of tracking, we’ve already seen some of the turtles move to similar foraging grounds to those over the past two years,’ explains Marina Antonopoulou, turtle conservation project manager at EWS-WWF. ‘Even though it’s a little early to say for certain, we’re seeing some feeding grounds being confirmed.’ It’s a notion underlined by the project’s scientific advisor, Nick Pilcher. ‘As summer approaches, several turtles are slowly but surely moving from their feeding grounds and out into deeper, cooler waters, much like they did in the past two years. This is completely unexpected, and has taught us about how turtles react to warmer temperatures. It offers a glimpse of how the species, at a more global level, might adapt to climate change.’ That said, Maria notes that the team are holding their breath over the next couple of months to see how many of the turtles repeat the pattern.
Over the next few months, the mission is to continue tracking the turtles, analysing any data transmitted. Towards the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, they will start compiling all the information from the past three years, putting together an in-depth analysis for the region.
‘This is a three-year project, so we’re not intending to tag any more hawksbill turtles next year unless we receive data that is wildly beyond our expectations,’ explains Lisa. ‘We’re in the midst of really looking at our conservation work and trying to figure out what those next steps will be, so it’s too soon to say. But the next six to 12 months will be very telling for us, particularly on whether or not we continue with hawksbill turtles or if we starting doing something else.’
And what might that something else be? Well, the Gulf is also home to a population of green turtles, as well as hawksbills, and the area is what Lisa calls a ‘data gap’ for both. ‘There is plenty of work that can be done, and we intend to continue working with partners in countries around the region to fill those gaps, as well as helping with any work they might already be doing,’ she explains.
Whatever they find, and whatever the next move might be in protecting the Gulf’s turtle population, you can visit the organisation’s website or sign up to the newsletter to keep up to speed. After all, with little known about the hawksbill’s habits, this could be the most interesting part.
Read all the latest news at www.gulfturtles.com.