Day four, and expectations are high. Will the day be a go? Will we get to see TEDs in operation? Will the weather cooperate? As we walked to the car we got some idea of what to expect. It was still. No wind. No clouds. The sun was shining. And oh was it shining! Not a breath of wind to cool us down, and by seven am on the dock things were a frantic beehive of activity: Small, two-year-old laboratory-reared turtles were being loaded aboard the Caretta in readiness for at-sea trials. Ropes were being readied, plans for deployment trials made, and the well-oiled machinery was in high gear, clearly evident. These guys have done this before, and it was wonderful to see the coordination and cooperation to get a mammoth task underway.
Today we were deliberately ‘shooting’ turtles through a trawl net and measuring the effectiveness of the TED with regards to how quickly the turtles were able to get out. This is how the NMFS test and certify new TED designs – most designed by fishermen – so that they can be used legally in the US. Anything longer than five minutes and the team of divers would step in and help the turtle to the surface. This was a complex operation. Three boats. Twenty one staff. Twenty five turtles. Nine hours. Four dives. The basic idea goes something like this: 1) Deploy a normal shrimp trawl with a TED installed. 2) Put a shot line down from the boat to the trawl headrope so turtles can be sent down to divers below. 3) Send three divers down from a second ‘dive boat’ to look after matters underwater. 4) Deploy a recovery team in a third boat to recover the turtles once they have gone through the net and are sent back to the surface by the dive team. 5) Come back and discuss the results.
Sounds simple, huh? But there is nothing simple to this in the slightest: There are strict communication rules between the divers and the Caretta through the shot line. There are strict diving safety rules. One of the divers sends a signal to the boat. Three pulls. A turtle gets sent down in a web basket and the lead diver underwater collects it, clips a flow to himself, and then clips the basket to the main net. Then he opens the basket, retrieves the turtle, and lets it go down into the trawl net. One other diver films the entire sequence. A third diver starts a stopwatch to time the escape. All three follow the turtle backwards towards the TED, and watch it make its escape. The moment it gets out of the TED the stopwatch is stopped; the float is clipped to the turtle and sent to the surface. Video stops. All three go back to the headrope, signal for a new turtle, and the process starts anew. On the surface a team is readying the turtles in their baskets. Another is recovering the turtles on the surface and relaying them back to the Caretta. The dive team signal with a yellow float that the dive is over and they are surfacing. Another team retrieves the main net between dives, while another team fills scuba tanks, others pass gear back and forth, and tend the boats. It is all a well-oiled machinery.
And the Malaysian delegation had some real fun and some real work. First up was Godfery: Dive assistant on the dive boat. Next dive, Rosidi goes out on the recovery boat – Godfery still is a fixture on the dive boat. Dive three, and Sharum’s on the dive boat and Rosidi is dive assistant. Syed keeps a watchful eye on all from the upper deck, taking it all in. Dive four and its musical boats again as the team go out on dive and recovery boats. Throughout the day they were physically handling turtles, working with the dive teams, and participating in the discussion of the results. John Mitchell was a great host explaining the whole process up front, and answering pointed and objective questions by the team. I could not have hoped for better hosts. Or for a better and more hands-on Malaysian delegation. The wonderful thing was the way everyone worked together – it is evident the Malaysian guys are all used to being out on boats, and the US team were more than welcoming and appreciative. I think we not only learnt a great deal, but forged some wonderful new friendships. It was great to stand back and watch it happen, and I am confident this is going to translate into great working relationships and a superb TED programme once we all get back home to Malaysia. The incredible learning opportunities a site visit like this brings can not be overstated: this was the first time the Malaysia team had ever handled these turtles (loggerheads is a first for all!) but also worked with TEDs and seen them in action. It would have taken me decades to provide this sort of experience back home, and we saw the results of thirty years of experience shine through in a single day. Simply amazing….