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Turtle run with turtle man - Mel Tennant

Published:Sunday | September 15, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Mel Tennant does a final count of the turtle hatchlings.
Baby turtles make their way down the beach to the sea in Oracabessa, St Mary.
Mel Tennant showcases the characteristics that make each species of turtle different.
Baby turtles make their way down the beach to the sea in Oracabessa, St Mary.
The turtle man, Mel Tennant, showcases the buried turtles. - Gladstone Taylor/Photographer
General manager of Jamaica Inn, Kyle Mais, helps Mel Tennant to count the number of turtle egg shells.

Garfene Grandison,  Assistant Lifestyle Coordinator

On the north coast, retired teacher Mel Tennant is known as the turtle man. But when Tennant first came to Jamaica in 2003, he knew absolutely nothing about turtles.

His interest in sea turtles peaked in 2005 when he noticed them on the beach in front of his property in Gibraltar, St Mary.

In an effort to protect these nesting turtles and hatchlings, Tennant became active in monitoring the beach and started the Oracabessa Bay Turtle Project. He now has a staff and an efficient turtle-monitoring system with support from a variety of organisations. The project monitors the beaches in the Oracabessa Bay area year round and collects detailed and valuable data. All the information gathered is shared with the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and the University of the West Indies Marine Laboratory.

But this has been no easy feat for Tennant as the community members lacked awareness as to the environmental repercussions of hurting the turtles. Tennant tells Outlook, "In 2004, we saw tracks so we started walking up the beach and realised what was going on. We didn't see any nests, but we saw empty shells. The next season, we tried to figure out a way to prevent people from killing them. We were on the beach every night for four months, and we would use big bright lights to dazzle them. They didn't know if it was the police or what, so they would flee, and that's how we basically stopped the killing." He continued, "Turtles are a protected species and they are critically endangered. When we first started, we had hawksbills, logger-heads and green turtles. Now they are basically all hawksbill."

He says that there are still green turtles on the point, but that they don't get to nest because people are killing them. He notes that people were not only killing the adult turtles, but were also digging up the nests and taking away the egg, so the species were being destroyed without being replaced. "Right now, we are trying to get the population back up and to protect them," he states.

In 2012 alone, the project helped the release of more than 16,000 hatchlings from their nests. On Outlook's recent visit with Tennant, we saw two nests being dug up with close to 350 baby hatchlings on his Gibraltar beach and another 163 on the Golden Eye Beach being released into open water.

Tennant is also actively involved in the introduction and development of the Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary, which is a joint project between the Oracabessa Foundation and the St Mary Fishermen's Co-operative. Tennant tells Outlook, "There are approximately 1,800 baby coral in nurseries that will be put out after the hurricane season. The reef recovery project has been very successful," he explains of the project that began in 2008. "He notes that because the parrot fish change colour when they matures, it confuses the fishermen who think that they are a different species. We also now have two to three-feet snappers, so now there are fishermen who had 10 fish pots and now using three because they are catching more than they used to with 10 and they are bigger." He added, "In the markets, people used to buy six fish (snapper or parrot) for one pound - but now they buying the fish sliced because they are so big. So we are changing the way people look at things," he highlights.

The Orocabessa Foundation oversees the reef protection, but Tennant wants to work with NEPA and corporate Jamaica on the turtle recovery programme. They have a few tabulations in their handbook, but they are basically estimated figures from fishermen giving an indication of the number of nests around the island. These estimates, Tennant says, are small and, since he has started, he has had hundreds of nests on one beach. "The security guards are behind the initiative, but the community has to be on-board to preserve the turtles. Educating the community is the key, but that takes four to five years, so we have to take it to the schools and allow the young people to champion the charge in the community".

Effects of eating a turtle

Tennant tells us that, if people eat the turtle meat, it could have serious consequences depending on the species. The hawksbill turtle, he explains, eats toxic sponges and it stays in its meat even when it is cooked. If the meat is fed to a child under the age of 10, there is a 20 per cent chance that it could kill them, and if it is consumed by adults like the barracuda, it induces paralysis that could last for three to four years. So eating them actually endangers the lives of people.

Sea turtle reaction recovery plan (STRRP)

According to Tennant, "what we are doing with STRRP and NEPA is mapping every beach in Jamaica that has turtles. We want to set up local groups in these areas and have these people walk the beach once a day to find turtle tracks, record any sightings, show them how to dig for the eggs and estimate how many turtles have gone out, etc. If we are able to do that, then we will have a more accurate report of the number of turtles that visit Jamaica's shores."

Tennant is also very optimistic about the tourism prospects the turtles might bring to the island. And judging by the reaction of the tourists that were there on our visit, we can see why. "This product will be great as a tourist attraction, because we already have people who want to come here for the turtles. If we can find another alternative to supplement what people are doing and get the environment going, then all of a sudden we will have another thing going that would make people want to come here."

He continued, "If we have all these villas and hotels on-board find a way to communicate to their guests about the turtles, then that would be good. And if you are releasing turtles the time that I am releasing them, then instead of maybe five per cent of the hatchlings actually getting out to sea unscathed, we are talking 95 per cent. So the amount that are actually getting out there is a massive increase which leads to an even more massive chance for the population to increase," he states.

The Turtle Run

Tennant and his team are on the beach at nights monitoring the nesting process, tagging and measuring the female turtles as they lay their eggs.Tennant is able to tag the turtle and measure its overall size. The position of the nest is recorded and ready for the cleaning process the next day.

The morning after, the tracks are measured and photographed. A diagram of the position on the beach is made and the exact location of the nest is recorded. The beach is then cleaned to hide the tracks and nest, to prevent anyone tampering with the nest or removing the eggs. If the nest is in a position where the eggs could become damaged or will not develop, then it is moved to a safer location on the beach.

To maximise the number of eggs that are hatched and hatchlings that reach the sea, the turtles are manually removed from the nest. When the turtles hatch naturally, about 30 per cent are lost to predators as they cross the beach. Turtles may also become trapped in the nest after hatching. By releasing the nest, it maximises the number of turtles hatching and prevents predators from attacking the hatchlings. The timing of the nest release is about 90 minutes before sunset, because at this time, larger fish that would attack and eat the hatchlings are not in the bay.