Having spent the last seven years working for the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) in the UK, I couldn't pass up the chance to meet up with MCS Seychelles (MCSS) while visiting these beautiful islands. With a team of only 7 staff members, it's not surprising that like us they welcome volunteers and I'm honoured to be one of them for my time here.
It didn't take long to meet the locals! At the Banyan Tree Rehabilitation Centre I was introduced to their resident Yellow-bellied Mud and Black Mud (or sometimes known as Star-bellied) turtles. They are the two species of terrapins found on the Seychelles, and while they may not be marine turtles, they can be found just behind the beaches here in freshwater wetlands and are both critically endangered. With their natural habitat being threatened by developments, pollution and invasive species it's no surprise that their numbers have declined. Luckily for them, MCSS have set up a programme to monitor their numbers and protect them.
First day on the job we headed out to the remote beaches of South Mahe to check some traps that the team had already put out in the wetlands in an area earmarked for a new tourist resort - and as if to prove that they really are rare, after checking around a dozen traps, we unfortunately hadn't caught any!
The next day we had more luck with the traps in the wetlands surrounding the rehabilitation centre. The first turtle we caught was a regular visitor and had been caught just a few days before - the staff recognised her instantly due to the unique pattern on her belly (plus the nail varnished scales used as an ID tag!) so we recorded her presence and popped her straight back. After a few more no shows we were lucky enough to capture a new individual that the team hadn't met before so she was measured, marked and recorded - I was asked to name her and since she had a unique purple colouration on her shell (only seen once before on a turtle known as Violet) I called her Viola, after my four year old niece.
But it's not just the freshwater turtles that need protecting here. The white sand beaches are a popular nesting ground for Hawksbill turtles, also critically endangered. I was pleased to find out that, unlike most other turtles, the Hawksbill turtles in the Seychelles nest during the day - no all night turtle patrols for me! So off we went to look for signs of new turtle nests and recently hatched ones. After walking along the shores of nine beautiful beaches we had recorded a new Hawksbill nest, which we found by the tracks left in the sand, and had dug up three recently hatched nests to see how many eggs had successfully hatched - thankfully all of the the eggs we found had.
The following day and back on the terrapin project, I saw first hand how the latest technology was being put into use by using drones to photograph wetlands to create habitat maps. Again the wetlands are potential sites for developments and the team are hoping to find the areas which are important for the terrapins so that they can hopefully be retained and disturbance minimized. We also caught a very cute juvenile terrapin back at the centre - smaller than the palm of my hand!
Another day and more beaches that need to be checked for signs of new turtle activity. We found some more new tracks on the beach but this time we couldn't find any evidence that she had made a nest - maybe put off by the dry sand or natural debris on the part of the beach she had chosen. We dug several nests which had recently hatched, two were very successful and we only found empty shells but the last was a bit of a mixed bag, over 90 eggs had hatched but a further 50 hadn't developed properly. Seven hatchlings hadn't made it out of the nest, stuck under roots blocking their exit - luckily for them we dug the nest soon after the main hatch and we were able to help them out. It was great to watch them make their way happily over the stretch of sand to the sea and take their first strokes into the torquoise blue water. Hopefully some of them will return to nest one day and will find the beach as welcoming a nesting site as their mother did.
It's not all about playing with turtles though - today we spent the morning removing water hyacinths from the wetland. This invasive aquatic plant species spreads at an alarming rate. It's hot work, but it feels good to do something practical to help improve the terrapins habitat.
Even though I have been here a very short time, and have come at the end of nesting season, I have seen lots of evidence of breeding Hawksbill's here and areas where terrapins have found a refuge. But like most places they are under constant pressure, whether it's from habitat loss, invasive species or sometimes poaching. But I have seen a strong desire to conserve the turtles on Mahe. Most beaches are patrolled and monitored for turtle activity, whether by MCSS or one of the other organisations on the island. Even though I am told that the beaches have begun to be more heavily developed over the last few years I can see that when they are developed there are rules which help to limit the impact on the beach - the wetlands unfortunately seem to be more heavily impacted. But hopefully with information gathered by organisations like MCSS their impact in the future can be reduced.