Tallying Turtles on Glover's Reef

July 26, 2013

WCS staff and Belizean volunteers joined Google staff volunteers to survey sea turtles at the heart of the largest coral reef system in the Western Hemisphere.

It took 16 snorkel expeditions, but it was worth it: The group of marine scientists, veterinarians, and volunteers on an annual sea turtle survey in Belize’s coastal waters spotted 90 of the reptiles in the course of one week.

The survey participants included WCS conservationists and veterinarians working together with volunteers from Belize and Google. The project, conducted in collaboration with the Belize Fisheries Department, received some key support from staff of Google, Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the Environmental Research Institute (University of Belize) as they assisted in the sighting, capture, tagging, and release of the marine-dwelling reptiles.

The survey has been conducted since 2007, with these goals:
  • determine abundance of the three species of turtles on the Glover’s Reef Atoll
  • increase knowledge of sea turtle movements and habitat use
  • assess genetic stock and growth rates of sea turtles on the Atoll
  • train stakeholders to collect accurate and standardized data.
It was the second year staff from Google joined the survey. Among the sea turtles the team sighted, 75 were critically endangered Caribbean hawksbill turtles. Participants also captured by hand a total of 27 sea turtles: 24 hawksbills, 2 greens and one loggerhead.

“The data collected during the surveys will help us answer a number of questions on these species, ranging from how many sea turtles might live in this area to how exactly they use their environment,” said Robin Coleman, WCS Belize Assistant Country Director and leader of the survey.

Once aboard the research vessel, the captured turtles were measured, weighed, and tagged by WCS Belize staff members. One animal—a sub-adult green sea turtle—was fitted with a SPOT satellite tag, so researchers will be able to follow its travels.

Before release, the captured turtles also received health assessments by Dr. Paul Calle, WCS’s Chief Veterinarian, and Kate McClave, Curator of Aquatic Health at the New York Aquarium. Specifically, the WCS veterinary staff conducted physical examinations on the turtles, collecting blood and tissue samples for pathogenic, molecular, and genetic testing. They also collected barnacles, algae, and other parasites; further analysis may reveal the regional sources of these passengers. 

“The Annual Sea Turtle Survey is a great opportunity to learn valuable information about the biology and ecology of sea turtles—vital for effective management plans,” said Dr. Caleb McClennen, Director of WCS’s Marine Program. “We also thank our committed volunteers from Google and other quarters for helping us carry out our important conservation work at Glover’s Reef.”