Yuletide on turtle time: They don’t know it's Christmas

The festive season coincides with the peak of Hawksbill turtle nesting in Seychelles. For the dedicated conservationists at Cousin Island Special Reserve, there's no time for a Christmas break. The turtles don't know it's Christmas.

But the real stars of December are the turtle hatchlings

The real stars of December are the turtle hatchlings

From dawn to dusk, the team patrols nesting beaches and collects vital data. "We genuinely forget it's Christmas," chuckles Chris Tagg, the Cousin Island conservation manager.
However, the team is not without yuletide cheer. Amidst the tireless efforts, there's room for fun, celebration, and food. And what better way to cap off the day than with a breathtaking sunset and a festive drink at the island’s viewpoint?

But the real stars of December are the turtle hatchlings. They would have been laid in October, two months prior, which is roughly the incubation period for turtle eggs.

“It’s our Christmas miracle – seeing these hatchlings emerge from the nest, orient themselves, and scamper for the ocean,” says Tagg.

Sea turtles are known for their unique behaviour of laying their eggs on the beach and leaving them to incubate on their own.

Eggs are left to incubate on their own

Eggs are left to incubate on their own

The success of these eggs hinges on factors like nest site selection, nest depth, temperature, sand composition, and minimal disturbance from humans or predators.

On Cousin Island, where some beaches experience severe erosion, nests below the low tide mark are carefully translocated to prevent waterlogging and protect against eggs being washed away.

Some nests are closely monitored, especially if there are concerns about the hatchlings' ability to emerge successfully.

This can include nests laid under shelters and on footpaths where sand compacts, making it difficult for hatchlings to emerge, or nests exposed during rainstorms.

"During previous seasons, we noted that hatchlings died after exhausting themselves trying to penetrate compacted sand or drowned when nests became waterlogged," Tagg explains.

The team excavates marked nests soon after hatchlings emerge before crabs scavenge the hatched nest. It helps determine the hatching success rate.

Additionally, Nature Seychelles is conducting other turtle research.

As with the previous season, samples of failed eggs will be collected for Seychelloise researcher Alessia Lavigne, who is investigating reproductive failure in turtles and tortoises.

Failed eggs will be collected for research

Failed eggs will be collected for research

The island is also testing the NEST (Nest Electronic Surveillance of Turtles) device developed with OceanLabs Seychelles, which monitors and transmits turtle nest environmental data including temperature, humidity, oxygen, and movement in real-time.

Amidst the scientific endeavours, another heart-warming Christmas miracle unfolded - a turtle missing part of a front flipper who successfully nested. "We don’t know if she suffered a boat strike or a shark bite, but her mobility on land wasn't impaired and she swam away pretty well. Tough girl,” says Tagg.

“As a volunteer for Nature Seychelles’ turtle monitoring program, I see a lot of beautiful Hawksbill turtles every day. But this one is my favourite so far,” says Jessica Nasica, one of the Turtle helpers.

Three-flipper turtles appear every season, but usually with a hind flipper missing. Some of these turtles struggle to dig the egg chamber as a result.

“The glad tidings are that despite the challenges, we are having a “turtley” awesome Christmas on Cousin,” he concludes.

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