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Turtle camera tagging: a glimpse into an underwater world

 

Happy World Turtle Day! Today, we’re celebrating everything that’s turtle-y awesome about turtles – and in this case, we’re going to dive deeper into turtle camera tagging.

In previous blogs, you might have read about the work we’re doing with flipper tags and satellite tags. And now we’re adding a new tool to our toolbox: camera tags! By using camera tags, we hope to be able to go on a visual journey with turtles as they travel through the vast ocean.

We use different tagging methods to better understand the population demographics and individual behaviour and movement of turtles. Through the use of satellite tags, for example, we can learn where a turtle is moving to when it’s not nesting on a beach in Kenya. That information then allows us to learn about the broad habitat types that turtles are moving through, but we don’t necessarily have detailed information about the quality of those habitats.

By using camera tags, we can get footage of these underwater habitats and so can gain a much better understanding of the level of pollution and siltation. We can also get a glimpse into the underwater life of marine turtles, which is simply fascinating! It’s for this reason that we’ve partnered with the Arribada Initiative to deploy 10 camera tags on marine turtles that come to nest in Lamu Seascape.

How to tag a turtle

If you’ve been following these blogs for a while, you’ll probably know that mature female turtles always come back to the beach that they themselves hatched from to lay their eggs. Isn’t that amazing? They also come back to nest 3-4 times during each nesting season. That means there’s a fair amount of predictability to their behaviour, at least during nesting season, and we use that to our advantage when tagging.

When we know the time is right, our teams (which consist of WWF staff, Kenya Wildlife Service staff and members of the local community who are part of the Kiunga Turtle Conservation Group) stay up all night waiting quietly for the turtles to come back and lay their eggs. We’re very careful not to disturb the nesting process but once it’s finished our team of experts carefully encloses the turtle in a temporary wooden barrier. Then quickly clean up its upper shell and attach the camera tag using durable glue. It isn’t rocket science, but caution, precision and timeliness are key. The camera tags have to be attached early in the nesting season so that we’re confident the turtle will come back to nest again soon at which point we can remove the tag and collect the camera footage.

Why tag a turtle

What marine turtles do when they’re at sea has always been a bit of a mystery. But through our tagging efforts, we’re starting to build a picture for those marine turtles that visit Kenya. The information that comes from the camera tags will give us even greater insight into the challenges being faced by marine turtles and the habitats they use and that will help us make strategic conservation decisions.

One thing in particular that we’re hoping the camera tagging will give us insight into is the impact of marine plastics, as well as other types of pollution, on marine turtle habitats along the Kenyan coast and beyond. Shockingly, WWF’s Living Planet Report showed that an estimated 90% of seabirds and 50% of marine turtles have plastic in their stomachs. Our oceans are choking with plastic and other solid waste and, if the current trends continue, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. We want to understand the extent to which the turtles we see are having to navigate plastic pollution and how it impacts their daily lives.

Capturing this information on film also helps us to tell a really powerful story when we talk to local communities and also when we talk to governments. We hope that the footage from the camera tags will provide us with evidence that can contribute to our efforts to beat the plastic pollution crisis that we’re facing. We’re calling on governments to have a global legally binding agreement to eliminate plastic leakage into the oceans so that we can end this crisis by 2030. To help this effort, you can sign our petition.

Stay tuned for more news about our turtle work and the footage that we manage to capture!

WWF’s Coastal Kenya Programme is kindly supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery and Size of Wales. The marine turtle tagging work is kindly supported by the Arribada Initiative. We are very grateful for the continued support.

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