Words & Images by Namrata Chand.
In the Lomaiviti Province is an island called Makogai, otherwise known in the 1990s as the “image of hope”. The island was home to a leper colony, and the ruins of this colony still remain on the island. The lepers saw Makogai as their safe heaven; a place where they felt accepted and optimistic about getting cured.
Last week, I joined a team of researchers from the University of the South Pacific (USP) and the Fijian Department of Fisheries to Makogai Island to study the sea turtles that are known to both nest and forage (feed) around the island Fiji’s waters are home to five of the seven living species of sea turtles: green, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley.
Our research had two aims. Firstly, we wanted to get genetic samples from foraging sea turtles around Makogai Island.The samples will contribute to a bigger project to identify genetic populations of sea turtles around Fiji, which is being led by Dr.Susanna Piovano from USP. We want to know if there are genetic differences between turtles that spend time in Fiji’s waters. Secondly, we wanted to identify areas where specifically sea turtles foraged around Makogai.
As we departed the weather did not look promising – it was raining and windy. We boarded on a fiber glass boat from the jetty near Queen Victoria School in Korovou and it took us about two and half hours to reach our destination. It was very bumpy ride and I was grateful to have reached the shores of Makogai safely. As the boat docked on the jetty, we noticed how clear and beautiful the waters were – we could already see the corals and different types of fish swimming around on the reefs. I could not wait to head out to the open waters to collect some field data.
The research was dependent on our ability to catch adult foraging turtles, and therefore the tide determined when we did our sampling. The technique we used to catch the turtles was called “turtle rodeo”. Basically this involved the careful capture of turtles while they were swimming around in their feeding grounds. We took the turtles ashore, where information was recorded on such as the length and width of their shell (called a carapace), and sex, and skin tissue samples were collected. Lastly, we tagged the front flipper, photographed the animal and released it back into the wild, uninjured.
Turtle rodeo was challenging – Kape from the Department of Fisheries would have to make several attempts to jump from a slow moving boat and capture a sea turtle in the water. After six days of hard work out in the field we managed to collect data from nine green turtles (Vonu).