Janice Schrader's Diary
Hawksbill Sea Turtles of Barbados
June 28-July 9, 2003


Wednesday, July 9, 2003
Tuesday, July 8, 2003
Monday, July 7, 2003
Sunday, July 6, 2003
Saturday, July 5, 2003
Friday, July 4, 2003

Thursday, July 3, 2003
Wednesday, July 2, 2003
Tuesday, July 1, 2003
Monday, June 30, 2003
Sunday, June 29, 2003
Saturday, June 28, 2003

Related Sites

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

As I leave, some thoughts about the trip:
  • What a great team of staff and volunteers. How lucky I am to have met them and worked with them on such a worthwhile project.
  • My world for the last 10 days has been all about turtles. How nice to be able to have such focus. No newspapers, television—just the work at hand.
  • I feel that we really made a difference—rescuing the hatchlings, relocating the nests.
  • My view of the world has been broadened and enriched because of this experience.
  • Direct experience with an environmental issue brings so much more depth of knowledge than just reading about it.
  • Thank you so much to Alcoa, Earthwatch, and the Barbados Sea Turtle Project for allowing me to be part of this project!

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

The clouds have mainly cleared. I'm really glad, because today I get to go out on a diving boat. The staff members dive down to the coral reefs to bring up juvenile turtles to tag or measure them.

Within a short time, the first turtle is brought up. She was previously tagged, and her name was Louise. I got to hold her on my lap as the measurements were taken. I was thrilled by that, but I can't say that she was as she kept slapping at my legs with her flippers! How different to see one of the turtles in the daylight, where you can see the color of its shell. One more turtle was brought up for measurements, and then our boat trip was done. Back to day patrol activities—recording nests and relocating eggs. One nest had to be relocated due to mongoose activity in the area.

We're off to Dr. Horrock's house for pizza and a last chance to say goodbye to the staff and volunteers I have worked with so closely for the last 10 days.

Monday, July 7, 2003

The day started off with some rain. I'm on day shift, and we're checking out nest sightings from the day before and recording their locations. We saw a leatherback nest—huge compared to the hawksbill's. The leatherbacks are the largest of the sea turtles—see Veronique Ansermet's and Joe Porter's diaries for more on the leatherback.

We were off to the east coast, the Atlantic side. It was raining steadily. We saw two more leatherback nests. Without the staff member to point them out, though, I never would have located them. The waves are really getting large. I am in awe of the raw power of the sea on the Atlantic side. The rain really starts coming down, and the wind picks up. We're all soaked from top to bottom, and we head back to the jeep. A nice quiet evening—I started packing since I'll be leaving the day after tomorrow.

Sunday, July 6, 2003

Today is tour day, with the staff taking us to various locations. One group went on a cave tour, and our group went to tour around the island. The North Point was spectacular, with cliffs and crashing waves. After lunch, we took a tour of a gulley with Dr. Julia Horrocks, the director of the Barbados Sea Turtle Project. The gulleys are interesting ecosystems. There are bearded fig trees, which Barbados is named for, limestone formations, and a lot of other interesting vegetation and invertebrates.

Tonight on patrol, I dug my first relocation nest. We try to make the nest the same shape and depth that the turtles make and cover and disguise it as they do.

We had quite a bit of rain—the rainy season definitely seems to have started! We did three relocations, with a total of more than 500 eggs. What a rewarding feeling to have hopefully saved so many hatchlings!

It was a good day. Very busy—out all day and then patrolling all night—but again very rewarding.

Saturday, July 5, 2003

The first turtle we saw took five hours to get a location for her final nest! She kept digging in areas where there were a lot of palm tree roots, and she just couldn't get a good nest. After six unsuccessful nest holes, she finally started to lay her eggs in the seventh hole. However, that one had roots in it, too, so it was decided that we would need to relocate the nest since it would be difficult for the hatchlings to emerge successfully out of the nest with all the roots.

I got to catch eggs for the first time! I had to lay on the ground behind the turtle and catch the eggs as she laid them in the hole, two or three at a time, and put them carefully in a bucket. We then relocated the eggs to a better nesting spot. What an amazing experience!

Friday, July 4, 2003

Friday, and a day off! The wind seems a little gustier today, and there are some clouds in the sky. I caught up on my laundry and spent a quiet afternoon on the balcony off our room writing postcards and catching up on my diary entries. It's very peaceful here, and nice to have some time to relax.

Out to dinner tonight with the whole crew to a local seafood area—booths where you can get various fish, vegetables, etc. I had a delicious dinner of mahi-mahi and grilled potatoes along with fried fishcakes.

I was determined to stay awake late to keep the night shift rhythm going, but I couldn't make it past about midnight. So much for staying up!

Thursday, July 3, 2003

This afternoon we went snorkeling in a bay where there were two sunken ships. The fish are beautiful—blue, yellow with black stripes, silver, some with very long snouts, angelfish, etc. What a beautiful area.

Back to a good dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce. I've been hungrier than usual here—guess it's the long distances covered walking on the beach. I'm feeling very rested, though, and ready to go out on patrol.

We started off the patrol on a very sad note. A turtle had been found dead on the shore, and we had to go investigate. It looked as though she had come up to nest, gotten wedged between two downed tree trunks, and was unable to free herself. It appeared that she had died three or four days earlier. We were unable to remove her at that time. We had to do our best to cover her with sand and leave her for more help the next day.

The rest of the evening was better, as we saw two successful nestings and several other attempted nests. It started to rain toward the end of the evening, and it was a good thing we had brought our rain jackets.

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

I slept longer this morning. Maybe I'm getting used to the night shifts.

I took a short swim in the afternoon, and after supper we were off to patrol. We saw three turtles by 11 p.m., and then no more for the rest of the night. I did get sprayed all over with sand as we tried to do nest location measurements as a turtle was disguising her nest (this was the night of sand in the ears!). Since we didn't see any turtle activity after 11 p.m., we had a little time at each end of the beach to rest. I saw three shooting stars! Beautiful! (I wonder what some of these beaches look like in the daytime.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2003

This afternoon I went swimming by the hotel beach with one of my roommates. The water is always nice and warm, but you can really feel the strength of the tides.

Tonight we are patrolling some different beaches. I like the fact that we get to go to various areas and go on patrol with different staff members and volunteers—it's a good way to get to know everyone and work with them.

We relocated several nests. When a nest is discovered in an area where the tides will cover it, it is moved. Otherwise, the eggs would be drowned. It's hard to imagine, but the embryos do breathe through porous shell openings even under the sand, which normally has enough air pockets. If the eggs are located where the tides wash over them, the sand becomes compacted, and no air can get to the eggs.

I had the wonderful experience of seeing a turtle as she came up out of the ocean—a large black silhouette against the night horizon. Very impressive and moving. This has happened for millions of years!

I also got to measure my first turtle, although that was a challenge since she was starting to cover the nest and moving from side to side. She didn't seem to mind me measuring her—she was too busy doing her job of covering. I have to say here that my measurements weren't too good. The staff member also did a measurement to check mine, which were off a good bit. Guess I need more practice measuring a moving turtle!

Monday, June 30, 2003

Woke up around 7:45 a.m.—can't sleep anymore. Tonight could be long! I went to the beach and saw some beautiful fish just by walking a short way out in the water. It's a little cloudy out, with a constant gentle breeze.

I went to the Barbados museum with my roommates. The museum was small but had some interesting exhibits on marine life and coral reefs. When we returned to the hotel, it was my turn to cook—for 17 people! We take turns cooking each night, and we all eat together—staff and volunteers. It's a good way to get to know everyone.

I was then off to patrol beaches with two staff members and another volunteer. The first turtle we saw made her first attempt at a nest under a beach lounge chair, which I could see moving as she dug! Apparently that spot didn't suit her, as she moved a short distance away and successfully nested between a lounge chair and umbrella stand. Shortly thereafter, we saw another turtle, which was taking a long time finding just the right spot to nest.

We split up into two groups, and I walked into the start of a most amazing and rewarding experience. We came across some hatchling tracks going in circles and not toward the sea. There was a bright light on the land that they had headed toward. There were also many crab tracks, and crabs eat baby turtles! So, we were worried that the hatchlings had been eaten. We followed their tracks and found a lot of hatchlings trying to get to the light but were blocked by a concrete step. We quickly gathered them into a bag until we had the last one, and then released them by the sea. There were 58 hatchlings! They probably would have been eaten if we had not come by when we did.

They are so cute! They tumble a little bit in the waves, and then disappear. They are about as big as the palm of my hand—quite a bit of growing to get to their final size of about 130 pounds (59 kilograms)! After that, we located and measured several other fresh nests sites. I am absolutely loving this! I'm also seeing firsthand the perils that the hatchlings and nesting females encounter—between the artificial lighting, which draws them away from the sea, to the beachfront development that reduces available nest spots.

Our patrol lasted from 8 p.m. to about 5 a.m.—a long night. Tiring, but very rewarding.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

We took a walk on the beach before our briefing meeting. It was beautiful but narrower than I expected for a turtle nesting area. The beaches are unprotected, so the nest areas are not roped off.

Our meeting at 10 a.m. was with Dr. Julia Horrocks, the director of the Barbados Sea Turtles Project. She has been working on the project for many years, and her presentation was extremely informative.

Covered with a coral limestone cap, Barbados was formed from the action of the tectonic plates and sedimentation rather than having volcanic origins like the other islands. On the east side, where the sand is siltier, is where the leatherback turtles nest. There are also some green turtles that feed on the sea grasses around the island.

The main hawksbill nesting grounds are on the south and west sides of the island. Barbados has one of the largest populations of nesting hawksbills in the Caribbean, and the sponges found on the island's coral reefs make up 95% of an adult hawksbill turtle's diet.

The hawksbills are named for their hawk-like beak, which allows them to pry the sponges off the reef. They are the main species eating the sponges, and this prevents the sponges from overrunning the coral. Because of this, the turtles have an important role in the ecology of the reefs.

Hawksbill females return to their natal beach at 25 to 30 years of age. They lay four or five clutches, with an average of 130 ping-pong size eggs. One amazing thing is that the female doesn't eat at all during the nesting season—she lives off of her fat buildup. The eggs take about 60 days to hatch, and the turtles hatch three days before emerging from the nest. They hatch at night so they don't dry out from the sun and so they can find the sea since it is lightest over the water at night. The most significant problem for the hatchlings is artificial light, which disorients them and draws them away from the sea. Beach development is also decreasing the available nesting area for the sea turtles.

We had another meeting later in the day to learn data-collection techniques. The data collected are very important in determining the status of the hawksbill for both national and international policy, so I want to get the best data I can when out on patrol. The most important thing to get is the identification (ID) tag numbers, or to tag the turtle if she doesn't already have tags. Carapace (shell) measurements are also taken as well as nest location data.

After our training, we had a delicious meal of chicken with pineapple and noodles prepared by the staff. Then we went out on our first turtle patrol!

We started patrolling at 8 p.m., and by 8:30 we saw our first turtle. Actually, we saw her tracks before we saw her. When we got to her, she was digging.

There is a specific order of events when a turtle comes up on the beach to lay eggs. The first step is "body pitting," where the turtle uses her front and rear flippers to clear the loose sand from the nest area, making a shallow pit. The next step is "digging," where she uses her rear flippers—alternating left and right flippers—to scoop out sand to dig the actual nest. The rear flippers appear to operate like hands, scooping out sand and laying it down next to the nest hole. The turtle stops digging when her rear flippers no longer eject sand or when the hole is the length of the flipper.

After a short time, the turtle we saw laid two eggs in the hole. The average number of eggs laid is about 130, and that normally takes about 20 minutes. After she started laying the eggs, we read her flipper tag numbers and measured the length and width of her carapace. She didn't seem to mind this, although we were careful not to walk in front of her and frighten her. She is so focused on laying the eggs that she will allow these measurements to be taken. We also looked for damage to the carapace. Our turtle had two barnacles, but otherwise no damage.

After laying the eggs, she covered them slowly and methodically, using her rear flippers to push sand back into the hole and pat it down. The last step is disguising the nest, using front and rear flippers to throw sand around. She can throw the sand quite far, as I discovered personally (this would be the beginning of living with constant sand everywhere—in shoes, on pants, and sometimes even in my ears!). Our turtle then headed right toward the sea and disappeared in the water. Fortunately, there was no artificial lighting to disorient her away from the sea. How amazing to have witnessed this ritual practiced by sea turtles for so long! And amazing how methodical they are in the nesting process!

Shortly after that, a second set of tracks was spotted (not by me—I haven't gotten the knack of spotting them before we're right upon them—hopefully my observation skills will improve). This turtle was larger than the first one—about 88 centimeters (34.6 inches) long—and she was in the process of laying her eggs when we got to her. We had to work quickly to get all the data. This turtle also did not seem to mind being measured.

There were no more turtles to be seen during the rest of our shift, which was short since it was our first night, ending at 11:30 p.m. I'm a little tired, but not too bad. What a great first night on patrol!

Saturday, June 28, 2003

I'm on my way from Evansville, Indiana (United States), to Barbados!

This project to monitor the nesting of the hawksbill turtle sounds so exciting. The hawksbill is endangered, and the data collected on this project will help determine the status of the hawksbill turtle population for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) classification as well as other decisions about the hawksbill.

The other team members on this project are from the United Kingdom, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and various U.S. locations, which also makes this a great opportunity to meet and work with people from around the world.

My flight left Evansville at 7 a.m. and arrived in Barbados at around 5:30 p.m. (all Evansville time). I got to my hotel at around 7 p.m. I probably should be tired, but I'm not! I met my roommates—Maria from Argentina and Amanda from the United Kingdom. Tomorrow, we'll have meetings to learn more about the project. What a great start to an adventure!


Related Sites


Hawksbill Turtles

Biology, Nesting Sites, and Habitats of Hawksbill Sea Turtles
From the Caribbean Conservation Corporation/Sea Turtle Survival League.
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The Incredible Journey of the Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Habitats, life cycles, and what The Nature Conservancy is doing to protect these turtles.
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Want to Take Action?
Find out what you can do to protect sea turtles.
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Barbados

Barbados Marine Trust
An organization dedicated to promoting environmentally and socially sustainable use of the marine areas of Barbados.
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Click image to enlarge.



Jan Schrader holds a juvenile hawksbill sea turtle.

Earthwatch Institute


Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.
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Hawksbill Sea Turtle of Barbados Expedition


Learn more about the expedition and its scientists.
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Hawksbill Sea Turtles


Explore the world of these endangered turtles.
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Hawksbill Fact Sheet


Learn how this turtle got its name and other interesting facts.
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