Ontario teen helps endangered turtles in Trinidad

Published 2023-06-07 23:00

Leatherback sea turtles have been around for 150 million years


By the light of the moon on a warm night in May, James Wilson stood on a beach in Trinidad and Tobago.

He watched what looked like a giant rock emerge from the ocean.

It was actually a leatherback sea turtle, slowly heaving itself up on the shore.

“You could just see how much effort it took for them to make their way up there,” the 16-year-old told CBC Kids News once he was back home in Milton, Ontario.

“It was quite amazing.”

James was the youngest person in a group of 12 volunteers who spent a week collecting information on the endangered species in the hopes of saving them.

James Wilson sits on the beach beside a leatherback turtle. (Image submitted by James Wilson)

Why is this work important?

Leatherback sea turtles have been around since the dinosaurs. That’s about 150 million years!

Every few years, the turtles nest and lay their eggs on beaches like the one James visited in Trinidad. Trinidad is an island in the Caribbean.

In the summer and fall, they migrate to the shores of Nova Scotia, where they feed on jellyfish.

A map showing Nova Scotia and Tinidad and Tobago, with a dotted line in between the two.

This map shows the trajectory of a leatherback sea turtle that was tracked by the Canadian Sea Turtle Network several years ago. (Graphic design by Philip Street/CBC)

But it can be a dangerous journey.

They sometimes get caught in fishing gear.

Their numbers are in decline due to other reasons, too, such as pollution and climate change.

Even though they are an ancient species, we know very little about them, said Kathleen Martin.

She’s the executive director of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network, which organized the volunteer trip.

“We still don’t know some very simple things, like how quickly they grow, how long they live,” she said.

That information could help scientists come up with new ways to protect the species.

“Turtles are conservation dependent, which means that they can’t survive without people at this point,” Martin said.

So volunteers like James help gather information about the turtles, such as their size and movements.

A teen lies next to the beach beside a turtle.

James said one of the things that surprised him most was how big the leatherback turtles were. The adults were as tall as he is! (Image submitted by James Wilson)

What volunteers did to help the turtles

In Trinidad, James got to watch the turtles lay eggs.

Once the massive creatures were on the beach, James watched them make their nests.

When they got closer, he could even hear them breathing.

“They were extremely delicate and dexterous with their back flippers,” he said.

“They would, like, scoop out a small bit [of sand] and flick it away.”

A leatherback sea turtle makes its way onto the beach under the light of the moon. Turtle conservationists use a red light to see and take photos in the dark. The red lights don’t confuse the turtles the way normal lights do. (Image submitted by James Wilson)

After about 30 minutes, the turtles stopped moving and entered a quiet state called a trance. That’s when they were focused on laying their eggs.

And that’s when James and the other volunteers got to work.

“It’s really, really hard to disturb them when they’re in that trance,” he said.

“That’s when you do all the tagging and measuring and data collection.”

James uses pliers to insert a microchip in a turtle’s flipper, which is called tagging. This happens while the turtle is laying its eggs. Look closely and you can see the eggs below the animal. (Image submitted by James Wilson)

With the help of two guides, as well as a local conservation group called Nature Seekers, they put tags on the turtles’ flippers and shoulders.

The tags have microchips that allow scientists to identify them when they return to the beaches to nest.

The volunteers then observed while the experts weighed the turtles.

A sea turtle is hoisted up to be weighed on the beach. (Image submitted by James Wilson)

James, who travelled to Trinidad with his aunt, also had a chance to see baby turtles (called hatchings). After they hatched from their eggs, they scampered into the water.

“It was quite amazing how much of a struggle it was for them to even get in the water with the waves,” he said.

“They would just be pushed back by the waves again and again and again.… But once they finally got out, they were gone.”

 A hatchling on a beach facing the ocean.

A hatchling makes its way to the ocean in Trinidad. (Image submitted by James Wilson)

How kids can help

James said he has always loved turtles. Being able to see them in real life was a great experience.

“I would recommend to anyone who has the ability to go on these trips to pursue them,” he said.

“Because it’s just an amazing experience that’ll stay with you for the rest of your life.”

The trip cost about $3,000.

James paid for part of it, thanks to his two part-time jobs.

In the winter he works at a local ski hill, and in the summer he works at a bike camp.

His mom helped with the rest.

Kayakers along a lush coastline.

Since the turtles nest at night, James and the other volunteers went on excursions like kayak trips during the day. (Image submitted by James Wilson)

Of course, it’s not possible for everyone to do hands-on volunteer work like this.

But Kathleen Martin of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network said kids can help the environment in other ways, like observing nature and taking notes.

“Dig a garden, do something that allows you to be in touch with that space so that you learn and notice things,” she said.

“That is actually deep conservation work, right? Because we need the people to notice what’s happening.”

She also said kids can clean up garbage and make an effort to reduce waste and packaging, from things like foods.

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