Ever since I was a little girl I knew I wanted to be a scientist – but I didn’t know what kind. What I did know was that I loved animals, especially ‘cold’ animals – reptiles, amphibians and insects – and that I loved the outdoors. I grew up in the big city of Chicago in the USA, but from the age of six to 20 I spent all my summers at my family’s fishing lodge in the lakes region of north-western Ontario in Canada. There I worked as a waitress, a fishing guide and a house painter and in my free time I explored the wildlife of the marshes, lakes and forests. But it was the warmer realms of our planet that particularly attracted me, and in the end I decided to attend postgraduate school in Florida because it was located relatively close to the American tropics.
I had grown up fascinated by accounts of the adventures of naturalists who travelled to the tropical regions of the world and explored wildlife and people there – Raymond Ditmars, Osa and Martin Johnson, George Schaller, Archie Carr, Gerald Durrell, Jane Goodall and Louis Leakey were just a few of my favourites. So in 1973 I decided to join their ranks before starting my postgraduate studies. I bought an air ticket and spent three months travelling on my own and exploring the diverse ecosystems of Costa Rica in Central America, from the hot and humid lowland rainforests of the Osa Peninsula to the chilly heights of Cerro de la Muerte.
At that time Costa Rica still had 80% of its original forest cover, its ecosystems were intact and it harboured an abundance and diversity of frogs (whose populations are now much reduced). During my third month in the country I worked as a full member of Dr Archie Carr’s sea turtle tagging team at Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast. Later I learned that I’d made history as the first female to do so. In those days North Americans rarely visited Central America; in the summer of 1973 I was one of only about 15 visitors to Tortuguero. Nowadays some 50,000 tourists go there each year to watch nesting sea turtles.
Dr Carr, who was regarded as the ‘father of sea turtle biology’ and was professor emeritus at the University of Florida where I would soon begin my postgraduate studies, was on site during my first visit to Tortuguero and we developed an excellent rapport. I felt privileged just to make his acquaintance, so it didn’t occur to me at the time that he would later serve as the chair of the supervisory committees for my MSc and PhD degrees. After all, he’d made it clear that he was not taking any new graduate students, having launched his last PhD student in 1969. Nevertheless, I was his student and research collaborator from 1973 until his death in 1987.
Under Dr Carr’s supervision I studied the feeding ecology of green turtles on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua for my MSc and the nesting ecology of the same species at Ascension Island in the South Atlantic for my PhD. And it was he who provided the recommendation I needed to secure my first full-time job after earning my PhD in 1981: a three-year contract in the Republic of Seychelles to do a study of the status and management of the sea turtle populations of this vast island nation.
Although I have worked with sea turtles in some 20 countries on six continents and visited more countries in other capacities since that time, the Republic of Seychelles has remained for me the most interesting of all my postings. This is because of its sea turtle populations with their fascinating nesting and foraging ecology, its wonderful people and its government’s support for biodiversity conservation. I find the Seychelles so interesting, in fact, that I have acquired dual USA and Seychellois citizenship and made the country my home for most of the past two decades.
The Seychelles comprises some 130 islands spread over an area of about 144,000 square kilometres and divided roughly into three groups: the granitic and mountainous Inner Islands where almost all the human population lives; the sandy cay Outer Islands (including the Amirantes), most of which are located between 200 and 400 kilometres from the main island of Mahé; and the remote upraised limestone islands in the south, which lie between 700 and 1,100 kilometres from Mahé.
As well as studying sea turtles and giant tortoises, my work here entails promoting the conservation of the turtles and their habitats. It soon became apparent that among the most effective turtle conservation tools were our long-term monitoring programmes because whenever such a programme was established, the poaching of turtles immediately declined. In this way the programmes have provided three benefits: they gather valuable scientific data about turtles; they engage members of the local communities in monitoring turtles; and they are de facto anti-poaching patrols.
When I first arrived in the Seychelles in January 1981, nesting sea turtles were being monitored at three sites in the Inner Islands: Cousin Island since 1970, Aride Island since 1976 and Curieuse Island since November 1980. I standardised the monitoring protocols for these sites and set up new long-term monitoring projects at Ste Anne Marine Park in the Inner Islands and at the remote Aldabra Atoll. The programmes are still in operation at all five sites. In 1992, a turtle monitoring project was initiated at Cousine Island (adjacent to Cousin) and the island began to be managed as a nature reserve.
Finally, in 1994, the Seychelles government passed legislation protecting all sea turtles from slaughter, sale or disturbance. The following year I returned to the country to work as a special consultant to the government to promote sea turtle and tortoise conservation. Between 1995 and 1998 we set up long-term turtle monitoring projects in the Inner Islands: on the beaches of southern Mahé, on Bird Island, on the beaches of north-western Praslin near the Lémuria Hotel, at North Island and at Silhouette Island. All these programmes are still under way.
In 2004 we began to implement intensive long-term monitoring programmes in the Outer Islands. The first of these, in 2004, was the D’Arros and St Joseph project in the Amirantes group. This was followed by turtle programmes at Alphonse Island and St Francois Atoll in 2006 and at Desroches Island in 2009. In 2014 a new turtle monitoring programme was established at Farquhar Atoll, and more Outer Island programmes are in the planning stages.
With so many monitoring programmes operating, there was clearly a need to bring the various participants together to share their experiences and the data they collect, and we have been discussing how best to do this since before 2008. In 2008 the stakeholders in the turtle monitoring programmes legally registered an association, which we named the Turtle Action Group of Seychelles (TAGS). The group was dormant for several years, but in 2014 we received funding from the Save Our Seas Foundation to revive it and establish a website. We are currently in the process of fulfilling these goals, and have a number of plans for other exciting activities in the pipeline.