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Turtle recall for sailors and marines on remote Indian Ocean base

Turtle recall for sailors and Royal Marines on remote Indian Ocean base
30 January 2018
Sailors and Royal Marines have been helping scientists better understand the habits of endangered turtles on an Indian Ocean island paradise.

The remote island of Diego Garcia - 800 miles south of the Maldives and 1,200 east of the Seychelles - is home to a small Senior Service detachment who help run a major US military base.

The otherwise idyllic British Indian Ocean Territory is also a popular nesting ground for female green turtles; each year upwards of 800 creatures dig holes in the sands on the edge of the beaches to lay their eggs before returning to the water.

Scientists committed to the conservation of the green turtle (its shell is actually brown - the name comes from the colour of the animal's fat used to produce turtle soup) flew out to Diego Garcia and enlisted the help of Brits and civilians working on the base for a major research project.

At dawn and dusk each day at the height of the turtle mating season, a 20-strong team of volunteers patrolled a 15-kilometre stretch of beach on the lookout for the creatures coming ashore to nest.

Some patrols drew a blank, but when nesting turtles were found, the 500lb amphibian were briefly 'impounded' in a wooden box while a satellite tag was fitted to them.

The opportunity to spend time up and close with such graceful, ancient, and endangered creatures was both a privilege, and satisfying to contribute to their protection and conservation

Sgt Matt Hinton

Once tagged, the turtles were released back into the ocean, transmitting data of their movements for Dr Nicole Esteban from Swansea University and Prof Graeme Hays from Deakin University, near Melbourne in Australia, to analyse.

"Tagging turtles has been a definite highlight of my time on Diego Garcia - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Sgt Matt Hinton, one of two soldiers who joined in the conservation effort.

"Working through the night in the wind and rain was much more arduous than I would have expected but it was well worth it when we found and tagged two huge turtles in one night. The opportunity to spend time up and close with such graceful, ancient, and endangered creatures was both a privilege, and satisfying to contribute to their protection and conservation."

Nearly two dozen turtles were marked, with the tags expected to provide data for up at least six months, and possibly as long as two years.

Despite their size and relatively ungainly appearance ashore, in the water the tagged turtles can cover 45 miles a day as they return to their feeding grounds.

Data from the tagging so far has shown the turtles headed west upon release bound for waters between the Seychelles and Madagascar. They have been known to make for the coast of Somalia 2,000 miles to the west.

As well as tagging, Royal Marines volunteers also recovered temperature gauges buried in the nesting grounds to measure the warmth of the sand (typically between 28˚C and 32˚C).

The information gathered will help scientists predict the ratio of hatchlings of different sexes and guide long-term conservation plans and projects.

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