For the Marine Biology Team at Coco Collection Resorts the year 2015 has been so far an incredibly exciting one. In this blog post Chiara Fumagalli, our very own Resident Marine Biologist, shares with us one of the events that marked this year as truly unique. And more are yet to be revealed!
“ Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”
-The White Queen- Alice Through the Looking-Glass
Under the influence of Alice’s adventures, I have secretly started training at believing as many as six (or even more) impossible things before breakfast since I was a small child. Some concerned of course living underwater and having marine animals as my very best friends.
Becoming a Marine Biologist meant training hard and learning to have a different approach to the underwater world. It also meant training hard to make sure these new perspectives would not replace my childhood dreams but enrich them.
Now I don’t just want to make underwater friends, I also want to know all about them!
Sea Turtles have always been at the top of my list of desired UW friends and when I started the Sea Turtle Identification Project at Coco Collection 2 years and few months ago… Well, I could not imagine the number of sea turtle friends I would have the chance to get to know!
Thanks to the unique scales pattern on each side of the head, photo-identification is the perfect, non-invasive technique used to recognize every single individual.
I always make sure that sea turtles are never touched or disturbed during these thrilling photo-shooting sessions.
Hawksbill are not just the most frequently encountered sea turtle species in the waters of the Maldives, but are also listed as “critically endangered” animals, meaning that their population is rapidly and alarmingly decreasing, placing these long-lived and irreplaceable inhabitants of the coral reefs near the brink of extinction.
Looking back at February 2013 and my very first sea turtle ID attempts, I can hardly believe (despite my childhood training) that today my database counts as many as 127 sea turtle individuals (or friends) and 718 registered sea turtle sightings around Coco Bodu Hithi only!
I also find it hard to believe how still little is known about sea turtles in general and about hawksbill turtles in particular; studying long-lived, solitary animals, able to migrate incredibly long distances throughout the oceans is definitely not an easy task.
This made me realized how precious my chance here was: resident hawksbill sea turtles living in my backyard! Oops, at my Resort’s house reef!
Not to lose this opportunity, day after day, month after month, year after year I have registered every single sea turtle encounter and trained my interns to not miss a single picture and asked my guests and colleagues to do the same.
It’s said that teamwork and perseverance always pay off…
And it is true: data collected have started to reveal the number and distribution of the sea turtles living at the reefs surrounding Coco Bodu Hithi and especially the regular presence of some individuals that I came to know well.
In particular hawksbill sea turtles HK270 CHLOE and HK307 ZHENG were showing a great loyalty to our house reef. In few words, they are always there when I need them: a snorkeling session with a VIP guest, a journalist or a group of travel agents.
I can’t remember how many times these two have made my day!
CHLOE and ZHENG’s comfort with people’s presence made me think I could dare to take a further step and try to measure their carapace length using a wooden stick. Definitely not the most sophisticated tool but good enough for my needs!
The estimated carapace length is a data I have always included in my database for each individual and the wooden stick confirmed my estimates: CHLOE ‘s carapace was approximately 52cm while ZHENG’s had reached 60cm.
Amongst the many uncertainties related to sea turtles life and biology, the maturity size is one still much debated, especially in the Indian Ocean.
Juvenile males and females look exactly the same, making it impossible to tell one from the other. Luckily when they begin to mature, the males develop a distinctive feature, a long, thick tail (tails remain short and small for females).
At what size the males’ long tail develops is still a matter of dispute among biologists (that enjoy disputing a lot).
And here comes one of my 6 impossible things before breakfast of 2015.
My database was based on a conservative 50cm maturity size assumption: all sea turtles above this carapace length showing a long and thick tail were registered as males, the ones with a short tail as females.
Accordingly, CHLOE and ZHENG were both females to me. Well, until last week.
In April 2015, ZHENG’s tail was still “normal” but when last measurement of its carapace was taken in June (62 cm sharp), in the comments column it was written: turtle has a very noticeable tail.
In August the tail looked again suspiciously bigger than usual but you know, I was packing for my annual leave, not the right state of mind.
On September 28th I went back snorkeling at the Coco Bodu Hithi house reef and spotted a sea turtle from far and behind. My heart burst at the view of the distinctive long and thick tail…an adult male at the house reef! You can imagine my face (ask MB Intern Alyssa about it) once I reached the sea turtle and I realized it was…ZHENG!
CONGRATULATIONS, IT’S A BOY!
Before or after breakfast, I could have never believed I’d have the chance one day to witness such a breathtaking event: a wild hawksbill sea turtle developing from juvenile to adult male under my watchful eyes, with over 73 registered encounters and 2 years and 3 months of observation.
Still I am not completely used to thinking of ZHENG as a male; this changes a bit the expectations I had for him (like laying lots of eggs one day for example).
On the other hand this new “situation” draws lots of new exciting scenarios!
After amending the entire database based on a 60cm maturity size assumption,
I turn to the expert: my colleague Dr. Jillian Hudgins, consultant for the Maldives Marine Research Centre.
“It’s amazing to see Chiara’s series of photos over the last two years, which have helped us narrow down the size of maturity for male hawksbill turtles in the Indian Ocean! Having eyes (and cameras) in the water day after day all over the Maldives gives our research team at TurtleWatch Maldives the ability to have long-term data sets on individual turtles, something that would be logistically impossible for a small research team to do by themselves. Marine biologists like Chiara and her interns provide vital links to the field and are making important discoveries that are furthering our knowledge on the Maldives’ sea turtle populations.”