How does sea turtle identification work?
Diani is a hotspot for sea turtles! Currently, over 2,000 individual sightings and over 500 individual sea turtles have been identified, just along Diani beach. The Olive Ridley Project (ORP) data indicate that there are currently at least 451 individual green turtles and 61 individual hawksbills, but there are likely many more! Not all the reef is monitored, and on a good day out collecting data, you may photograph over 20 sea turtles just on one dive site, some new!
Becoming a good spotter of sea turtles’ underwater needs time and experience; first one must get accustomed to the dive site. Learn about cleaning stations. Even though sea turtles are solitary animals, they can be found together in the same environment, either resting or getting cleaned. Learn about the best environments to spot turtles, which happen to be coral rocks that create good hiding spots! Once experienced, you’ll always sense there are turtles around even before you spot them! This is where you signal to your dive buddy, “keep an eye out, there might be turtles around!” It is important to always work as a team with your dive partner.
When you spot a sea turtle, you must keep at least 2-meter distance from the turtle, try and approach the turtle from the side gently so as not to scare it away. Turtles might be slow moving on sandy beaches, but when underwater you won’t catch up with one once it takes off – you will run out of breath or finish all your air! Once you position yourself well to get a good photo of the sea turtle’ face, take your shot of both sides if possible and estimate the length of the carapace, make notes on its behaviour. At the end of the dive, you record the number of sightings, the dive site, the species of turtles, record the time and depth of the sighting (you can cheat and take a photo of your dive computer if you have one) and record any other information that you think necessary, and there you go, you have data! Sometimes you will encounter the same sea turtle twice during a dive, but that’s part of data collection; at the end of the dive you take note of the number of sightings, current conditions, visibility, water temperature and dive duration and share all the turtle gossip with your buddy!
Once back from the dive it’s time to input your data. We download all the pictures and put them on a folder of the different dive sites visited that day. Then using the existing database, we manually check through each turtle already identified at that site to look for a match. If we find one, the sighting is listed. If we do not, the entire database is checked in case a sea turtle has moved. If the turtle is a new turtle, it gets a code and it becomes available for adoption. All adopted turtles have names which his/her adopter gives it. The turtle adoption program is a way to complement any funding to the Olive Ridley Project’s amazing work of monitoring the sea turtle population in Diani!
Sometimes when diving you can actually tell whether the turtle you just photographed is a new turtle on a dive site. New turtles tend to be small in size and they tend to be very shy. It’s often not an easy task to get a photo of these ones. But for resident turtles it can be very easy; these are turtles that you will always find in a particular dive site, like the hawksbill turtle H003, John Koho, who is one of the most sighted sea turtles in Kisima Mungu. These residents are very chilled turtles, often just hanging around as you take their photos. In fact, once you are used to these turtles, you can immediately identify them on a dive! For a more in-depth analysis of the Olive Ridley Project’s research work in Kenya, visit the African Conservation Telegraph to read their brief article; https://conbio.org/groups/sections/africa/act/photo-identification-as-a-tool-to-study-sea-turtle-populations-in-kenyan-ma.
There are many projects along the coast of Kenya working to protect and conserve sea turtles, and I am incredibly lucky to contribute to one of them. I am very proud to assist in data collection for the Olive Ridley Project. If you are based in Kenya or you occasionally visit Kenya, please help us spread the word about marine conservation and the vital projects operating to conserve marine life! You can always find a way to support their invaluable work and spread awareness about them, such as adopting a wild sea turtle with Olive Ridley Project: https://ceskenya.org/product/olive-ridley-project-sea-turtle-adoption/ or a sea turtle nest with Diani Turtle Watch: https://ceskenya.org/product/diani-turtle-watch-nest-adoption/! OR why not support our Conservation Education Society programmes by sponsoring a school in Diani to learn about marine life with our team? OR better yet, be a member of our marine club! Marine Club Individual: https://ceskenya.org/product/become-a-corporate-sponsor/ and Marine Club Junior: https://ceskenya.org/product/become-an-individual-sponsor/