I will be cruising along the wild coast of the Bird's Head Peninsula (West-Papua, Indonesia) on an inflatable boat, chasing down baby leatherbacks that could easily fit in the palm of your hand. I want to see how currents carry them away from the coast into productive ocean gyres, or "nurseries", where they can start feeding.
To do this I will use a tracking technique I pioneered and which allows me to follow the tiny animals for several hours, providing information on how they swim and orient themselves. The data will go into a powerful computer model based on how ocean currents flow. The turtles, now virtual, will move along the model and tell us what happens during this critical stage of their lives.
A turning point is reached when they are 30 days old. This is when they have depleted their "yolk sack" energy reserves. From then on, they will have to rely on their hunting skills to find jellyfish and other gelatinous prey. And you better be in a productive, food-rich part of the ocean if you want to have a chance of survival!
So, do turtles from one beach get entrained into ocean habitats that have more food than turtles born elsewhere on the Bird's Head Peninsula? If we can figure that out we can prepare more efficient conservation measures to protect these amazing animals.
It sounds simple, but it is one of the longest-standing mysteries in sea turtle biology...
West Papua is one of our planet’s last frontiers. It boasts countless creatures yet to be discovered and sits at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the epicenter of marine biodiversity.
One of its most iconic species is the leatherback. At 7ft in length and weighing up to 1,500 lbs, it is the largest and one of the most endangered sea turtle. The beaches of Jamursba Medi and Warmon, on the Bird's Head Peninsula, are the last important nesting sites for the West Pacific population.
Conservation actions focus on protecting the nests from predators through beach patrols and relocating egg clutches to hatcheries. However, the bulk of the hatchlings’ mortality might happen at sea, due to starvation and/or predation. As nest numbers at Warmon seem stable, it could be that hatchlings that disperse from there encounter more favorable ocean conditions (more food and less predators) than hatchlings dispersing from Jamursba Medi, which has seen a decline in nesting.
Results from this study will allow me to address this question and indicate where conservation measures should be focused.
Your money will enable me to carry out my field work in July-August 2012. With it I will buy acoustic tags to relocate Lagrangian drifters I use to measure ocean currents. It will also allow me to purchase small equipment, food and medicine for in the field, and pay for transportation at sea (there are no roads in the area).
With $16,000 I will be able to pay for my flight to Papua in 2013, hire an assistant, pay for sea transportation and acoustic tags to track hatchlings for several hours in a row (I detach the tags when I finish my experiments so hatchlings can continue their journey unhampered).
$21,000 will enable me to cover all the aforementioned costs plus 5 Lagrangian surface drifters.
If you are willing to back me for the 2013/2014 season I will invite you to join me in the field!
Your donation, which will go to my non-profit, is tax-deductible.
I was born in Holland from an American father and a Dutch mother. I was raised in Holland, France and Indonesia. After becoming an environmental engineer I went to Latin America to pursue a Bachelor’s degree (in Costa Rica) and a Master’s degree (in Puerto Rico) in Marine Biology. After a 6-year stint as a marine biologist/conservationist in Indonesia, working for WWF and Conservation International, I went back to studying sea turtles, animals that have fascinated me for over 10 years.
I am now a PhD candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (San Diego, California). My work takes me to some of the wildest places on Earth: Indonesian New Guinea and the Amundsen Sea (Antarctica), where I study emperor penguins.
I am co-founder of a California-based non-profit, "Ocean Positive", or "O+"(oceanpositive.org), which supports science and community-based programs that benefit conservation in the Coral Triangle. I believe the key to successful conservation is to help local communities improve their livelihoods through sustainable practices and education. This will help them understand the link between preserving nature and long-term social and economical welfare, making them passionate shepherds of their own natural environment. Besides supporting conservation science, O+ runs projects on the Bird's Head to improve local schools, provide scholarships to poor students and initiate community-based butterfly farming.