Looking into the eyes of a sea turtle

Baby Sea Turtle Saved from a Fishing Net

“How do you stay positive when so many turtles are dying on a daily basis”? asked one of the Earthwatch volunteers. I paused for a second and contemplated a contrived answer. But then I told her the truth: “I cry myself to sleep most nights”, I said softly.

I’ll never forget the last field season of my masters research at Laguna San Ignacio, a small, magical bay located off the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. I went there to track the fine scale movements of sea turtles, my dream job, but quickly found myself marking and counting hundreds of dead turtles in the span of a few weeks. The turtles were drowning after becoming entangled in gillnets. They eventually drown when the tide rises above the buoys at the top of the net, which is anchored to the bottom. Fishing was particularly good that summer, which meant lots of dead turtles.

Sea Turtle Tagging At Night in MexicoI remember vividly the first night it really hit me. We were out tracking turtles and came across a fisher’s gillnet. We checked the length of the net for turtles but didn’t find any. Even though I was exhausted, I didn’t sleep that night. I listened to the waves as they gently and ceaselessly hit the shore. The time that elapsed between each successive wave seemed like an eternity. Eventually, I could hear the waves right up against our cottage. It was high tide. The net was underwater. I wish I had a switch that would have allowed me to deactivate my imagination, but I didn’t. The following morning we retuned to the area where we found the net, and there were two floating turtles nearby – dead. “What a shame,” my dad muttered to himself. I was silent. I couldn’t find the words to express my sadness. Perhaps they didn’t exist.

I had counted and marked dead turtles before – my first time in Baja – but this was different. These weren’t shells or fragments of bone and shell. These were turtles that were alive 24 hours earlier. I could look into their eyes.

They were trapped as I slept.

You would think that eventually one would get used to seeing dead turtles on a daily basis. The brain has a coping mechanism for dealing with sadness. Take the daily news for example. But I never got used to it.

Baby Sea Turtle Saved from a Fishing Net One morning a fisherman unexpectedly brought me a small turtle he had found alive in his net. We named her “Bujia Bebe” (baby spark-plug). She was the smallest and most beautiful turtle I had ever seen. Her bright white bottom shell (plastron) and flippers indicated that she had recently arrived at the lagoon from years of drifting with the currents in Sargassum seaweed mats somewhere far offshore in the Pacific Ocean. I tracked Bujia Bebe for five days – she covered the entire lagoon – moving farther and faster than any other turtle I had tracked. Then, in an instant, she disappeared. But she left me with something far more valuable than any amount of data: hope.

I asked my close friend and colleague Dr. Wallace J. Nichols about this hope/despair dichotomy, as he’s counted thousands of dead turtles in Baja over the decades and, like me, has tracked some live turtles to their death. A decade earlier Nichols tracked the first sea turtle across the Pacific Ocean from Baja to Japan. Her name was Adelita and just before completing her transpacific journey she was captured by a fishing boat. Her last GPS reading came from a fishing dock in Japan.

“Pour yourself into finding solutions,” he said. “And pay special attention to the joyful moments.” I never forgot that.

Fast-forward three years to the present. This past March, my collaborators from Grupo Tortuguero, NOAA, and I received a grant from the Walton Family Foundation and NOAA for me to return to Baja California to conduct my PhD research on developing and testing modified fishing gear that aims to greatly reduce the incidental capture (termed “bycatch”) of sea turtles while maintaining catch rates of fish species that fishers are trying to catch.

Specifically, I will be testing the effects of illuminating gillnets by placing LED lights along the net. The idea is simple – turtles can pick up certain wavelengths that some fish cannot, allowing them to see the net and hopefully avoid it while fishers still catch fish. My research will take place at Bahia Magdalena – coincidently – the very place along the Baja California peninsula where I started my sea turtle research 8 years ago. I’ll be working with a gillnet fishing fleet that has one of the highest documented sea turtle bycatch rates on the planet.

Over the years I’ve become fairly proficient at calming a live sea turtle. I grew up keeping and breeding turtles as a kid, and have found that what usually works for a box turtle also usually works for a sea turtle. I place both my hands gently in a small area between their neck and jaw and hold it there ever so slightly for a few seconds, and then slowly rub the top of their head in a circular motion. I always make sure to look into their eyes. There is something magical about looking into a sea turtle’s eyes that can’t be sufficiently described by words. It needs to be experienced.

Hopefully, this time around all eyes will be looking back at me.

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  • Margaret Blair says:

    Jesse, I know what you mean about looking into the eyes of a sea turtle, my husband has Huntingtons Diisease and we went to an aquarium where we saw a sea turtle(not the best place I know) the turtle hovered in the water right in front of David and the two just looked at each other for a very long time, it had such sad but gentle eyes, I have never forgot that experience. You a doing such wonderful work for these lovely creatures, thank you. Margaret and David Blair, Fife Scotland.

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