Friday, January 19, 2018

Sea Turtles and Climate Change

"Hot chicks, cool dudes," is the saying that helps us remember that warmer temperatures are likely to produce more females in a nest of reptile eggs. Anjani Ganase, marine scientist, considers the conservation of sea turtles in the face of changing climate. (First published in Tobago Newsday, January 18, 2018)

Although my career as a marine scientist is still in its infancy, I have managed to witness substantial declines in coral reef ecosystems over the past ten years. While surveying some of these reefs frequented by other megafauna, such as manta rays and turtles, it made me wonder how these long-lived ocean residents, dependent on these ecosystems, were dealing with the rapid changes that have been occurring over the last thirty years. Sea turtles in particular, are an ancient species living in the present-day marine world. They have been around for about 100 million years (humans have only been here for about 200,000 years), having survived the last mass extinction event, 65 million years ago, and have also been through significant temperature and sea level shifts (Hamann et al 2007; Hawkes et al 2009). With future predictions of a rapidly warming climate on top of man-made stressors such as habitat loss and pollution, there is concern that these long-lived creatures may not now adapt quickly enough (Hawkes et al 2009).
A curious loggerhead turtle approaches the camera during a survey of the far north Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Anjani Ganase
Most of what we can anticipate for turtles in the future (given our rapidly changing climate) is based on knowledge of the nesting routines of the turtles. However, less is known about their routines between nesting seasons when they are foraging or migrating across oceans. Foraging and migratory patterns of sea turtles vary considerably among species, as well as geographically. Leatherback turtles travel the open ocean often to colder waters, feeding mainly on jellyfish; while the green turtles stay within the tropics and forage on sea grass beds and coral reefs neighbouring their nesting beaches (Hawkes et al 2009). How the food sources and ecosystems on which these turtles rely will fare under the changing climate may be a useful indicator of the health and survival of turtle populations.

Warming temperatures

If you were born after 1985, you have only ever experienced a hotter than average planet (compared to the previous 100 years; IPCC 2013; Roon 2015). The same goes for sea turtles. However, sea turtles are far more sensitive to temperature. While our gender is determined by our chromosomes/genes, the sex of most reptiles - including marine turtles - is determined by the temperature the eggs are exposed to while they develop. Higher temperatures produce female marine turtles, while eggs in cooler temperatures produce males. Eggs only successfully develop within a narrow temperature range; and indeed, may not thrive at all if the temperature is too low or too high. Sea turtle nesting is therefore largely limited to beaches in the tropics and sub-tropics where the conditions are most suitable for success. Numerous studies have predicted shifts in the sex ratio of turtle hatchlings to more females due to the predicted increasing global temperatures. A recent study has revealed that a remote tropical location in the northern Great Barrier Reef (Raine Island and Moulter Cay) has already been producing mostly (99%) female hatchlings for the past two decades because of the above average temperatures (Jensen et al 2018). This shift towards predominantly female offspring brings concern over the number of males available to mate. Along the east coast of Australia, Green turtles nest in the summer typically at locations that have incubating temperatures between 25 – 33 degrees Celsius (Hamann et al 2007). Unfortunately, a further increase in temperature by more than 2 degrees (by 2050) may push the incubating temperatures of these nests beyond the survival limits of the turtle eggs (Hamann et al 2007). However, there are other factors that influence the incubation temperatures (including specific traits of the beach, such as its grain size, sand colour, ventilation, precipitation and shading of the nests) which can result in geographical variations. While some beaches such as those in the northern Great Barrier Reef may produce predominantly female offspring, this may not be true for all beaches.

With a warming climate, there is also a potential for shifts in the timing of the nesting season or to other locations, which may allow turtles to compensate for the observed warming effect. Such shifts have been observed in the past with specific sea turtle populations (Hamann et al 2007). Warmer waters may trigger females to begin nesting earlier in the season, or to choose different nesting sites (Hamann et al 2007). However, such changes in nesting patterns may depend on the particular sea turtle species as some species tend to be more faithful to their nesting sites than others.

Sea-level rise

The rate of sea-level rise over the last century has been increasing at a rate of 3.2 mm/ year between 1993 – 2010 (IPCC 2013). This may not sound like much but a higher sea-level will affect low-lying coastal areas. This poses a problem for turtle nesting habitats that occur on sandy beaches along the coast, especially in areas where a natural inland migration of beach isn’t possible because of fixed infrastructure. As a result, the area of viable nesting locations becomes significantly reduced because of rising water tables that inundate nests with salt water, thus drowning the eggs or washing them away (Hawkes et al 2009). Currently, coastal cities globally are spending millions of dollars protecting properties by relocating sand or building bluffs and embankments to reinforce foundations. Such concrete structures further reduce the available natural sandy habitats for nesting.

Although these are trends that have occurred in specific locations and might be expected to occur elsewhere, there are numerous other factors that influence the survival and successful reproduction of a turtle. These additional factors; including the topography of the beach, its vegetation and even precipitation may buffer or exacerbate the changing conditions. The combined effects of these factors are likely to result in significant geographical variations in turtle nesting habitats.

We are now living in a time when humans have altered the climate and made substantial modifications to landscapes and ecosystems; and man and nature are experiencing unprecedented changes in our planet as a result. The survival of sea turtles is dependent on the availability of new and varied nesting sites and the adaptability of turtle behaviour, in seeking new nesting grounds within their biological framework, as well as changes in our behaviours. Trinidad and Tobago is home to many turtle species that nest on our beaches and feed on our reefs, sea grass beds and other nearshore habitat. In light of current scientific findings and the predictions for turtle populations, conservation efforts need to consider the rapid changes that may occur. How will our beaches and our local climate change with warming temperatures and rising sea levels? What measures can we take to ensure that suitable habitats – nesting sites – are available for future generations of sea turtles?

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Dr. Michelle Cazabon-Mannette for her input and feedback.

Hamann, Mark, Colin J. Limpus, and Mark A. Read. "Vulnerability of marine reptiles in the Great Barrier Reef to climate change." (2007).

Hawkes, L. A., et al. "Investigating the potential impacts of climate change on a marine turtle population." Global Change Biology 13.5 (2007): 923-932.

Jensen, M. P., Allen, C. D., Eguchi, T., Bell, I. P., LaCasella, E. L., Hilton, W. A., ... & Dutton, P. H. (2018). Environmental Warming and Feminization of One of the Largest Sea Turtle Populations in the World. Current Biology, 28(1), 154-159.
IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Roon, R. B. Let’s call it: 30 years of above average temperatures means the climate has changed (2015),

Friday, January 12, 2018

Island Connections to the Pacific

From her University of Queensland base in Brisbane Australia, Anjani Ganase, marine scientist, visits islands in the South Pacific and finds familiar island traits with her Caribbean home.

Just off the east coast of Australia, lies Vanuatu, 83 islands in the south western Pacific with a culture vastly different from that of Australian neighbours. There, I found similarities with Caribbean culture and ecosystem that resonated with me. Their island culture is also well-blended with indigenous and colonial influences and has become its own identity.

The islands of Vanuatu occupy about 680,000 km2 of the south-western Pacific region. Their official languages include English and French, but there are over a hundred languages spoken across different islands and communities and the dominant creole language throughout the islands is Bislama. A blend of English and indigenous languages of Vanuatu, Bislama has morphed grammatically into a distinctive form. This language permits communication across villages and with foreigners, mainly Australians.  It is almost too familiar to the Caribbean ear, having a similar colonial root. A term like ‘pikinini’, reminds me of “pickney’; both mean child and both are reflective of the harsh colonial history. Other similarities between the Caribbean and Vanuatu include the local music, where local songs have reggae feel or even a groovy soca vibe made solely from the twangs of the guitar; and of course having a Digicel top up sign on every corner! The similarities between Vanuatu and the Caribbean do not stop here.

People of Tanna in the South Pacific Vanuatu island chain: displaying the uses of local plants in their traditional way of life. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Tanna Island, Vanuatu
Tanna is one of the southern islands of Vanuatu. This island has minimal permanent infrastructure: a few resorts, the main town, the central market and the road connecting them that runs along the western side of the island. The rest of the island is left to nature; roads that cross over the middle of the island are paved in ash and black sand. Fog, rain and the lush forest can close in on you and prevent you from venturing on your own. Trees and bush quickly bar roadways and paths where traffic wanes. During the hurricane season when visitors are few, we felt as if we were discovering untouched rainforest areas, secret landscapes hidden behind the forest canopy. Mount Yasur, the island’s resident volcano, and a guiding beacon for sailors in the southwest Pacific shapes Tanna’s natural landscape and culture. At night, we are guided by the ever-present glow of the volcano, which orients the locals living in the dark. There is no need for streetlights or neon lit signs. Instead, there are stars for entertainment, and story telling and silence, with perhaps the faint blare of music from a passing bus. Tanna homes are simple. Beautiful bungalows are woven from bamboo and palm leaves, often nestled under giant banyan trees and surrounded by ornate gardens beautifully laid out with ginger lilies and bougainvillea. On our day of exploration, we were shown, by the people of Tanna, how the forest, the rocks and the earth are all integrated in the their way of life. Leaves of one tree stacked one on top the other can be used to lift the weight of an injured person; while the roots of another tree (kava) is used in rituals and social gatherings, where the effects are relaxing and soothing.
A snorkeler swims through a gap in the reef flat that is teeming with corals. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Taking a peek underwater at Tanna’s coral reefs, I was also surprised to see a few reefs still rich in coral life, considering that in recent years there were a series of disturbances. In March 2015, Vanuatu was hit by a category five cyclone Pam, which passed less than 20 km off the west coast of Tanna, where their more sheltered reefs are located. In the summer of 2015-2016, an ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) event on top of an already warming climate triggered what turned out to be part of the third global mass-bleaching event: many Pacific islands, including Vanuatu were put on coral bleaching alert for persistent periods of higher than average sea surface temperatures ( Coral bleaching in the region was reported in several areas, including the Great Barrier Reef and American Samoa. It was clear that these reefs of Tanna were not affected as badly as the other reefs may have been. Although the reefs were not pristine, mass death from bleaching did not stand out. In fact, what was reflected were two years of recovery after cyclone damage, with coral recovery seen in many smaller colonies of branching communities, growing on the reef flat and crest, while the larger boulder colonies appeared to be little affected. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ignore another similarity with the Caribbean, Tanna reefs are also heavily overfished. Considering that cyclone Pam destroyed much of Tanna’s already delicate infrastructure, it was comforting to see resilience both above and below the water.

Small-island nations like Vanuatu in the Pacific and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean will be the first to experience the effects of climate change, which will indeed spark necessary future changes. I wonder whether the decisions we make will be similar, and I hope that they will be for the better.
In the shadow of the volcano: a young boy plays in the sand at the base of Mount Yasur, Tanna Island, Vanuatu. Photo by Anjani Ganase
Branching corals grow in sheltered pools on the reef flat on Tanna Island, Vanuatu. Photo by Anjani Ganase

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Zero Waste Challenge

Tobago's iconic locations are well-kept and tidy; cleaned overnight, ready for visitors every morning. But do you know where the trash goes?
Do you think you can live so lightly that you generate no waste? Take the Zero Waste Challenge and find out how far you have to go to Zero.
Like all challenges of this nature, it asks us to consider the process of approaching “zero waste.” We are led to consider consumption patterns, use, re-use and recovery of waste products.  Even if we don’t get to zero waste, perhaps we may re-consider the growing hills of garbage and come to regard them as resources for new industries. Recycled plastic is already being used to make shoes and bags; fabric and furniture, or construction and road building material. A few countries have turned to renewable sources of energy; and support industries that produce zero waste. Other communities are repairing and repurposing used items.

Perhaps, this is an exercise that may be developed as a study for a class of primary or secondary students for any school term in 2018.

Step 1:
In a day, or a week, consider all the waste that is generated in your home. It would be useful to sort the waste materials into bins or boxes. Even if you don’t do this, create a chart on the fridge. Keep a Waste Diary in an old notebook.  List categories such as:
Glass (bottles);
Plastic (include shampoo bottles, beverage containers, styrofoam packaging);
Organic (vegetable and fruit peels, egg shells, fish and chicken bones);
Oils (cooking oil or grease; engine oils and lubricants);
Paper (newspapers, cardboard boxes, waste paper);
Other (appliances, used clothing, books, toys, pots, furniture).
Whether you are actually sorting and storing, or putting everything into the household garbage, record the items that you discard each day, in a week, a month, a year.

Step 2:
Consider how you might re-use each item that you are discarding.
Glass beverage bottles are re-usable or returnable. Carib Glass recovers their beer bottles; others are collected by Carib Glass to be ground up and remade into new bottles.
Plastics are the most insidious of the waste; they get into every waterway. You may want to consider how you can reduce your plastic waste by refusing to use plastic straws and single use containers and cutlery, for instance.  Carry your personal reusable water bottle. Some people are even carrying cutlery and standard jars for drinking. Before you select soft dinks in plastic bottles, think of how you will dispose of the bottle – as well as the nutritional value of a sugary soda beverage.
For Organics, you may consider feeding your chickens, or building a compost bin. If you decide to compost – or to simply put vegetable and fruit peels in a secluded spot in the yard – you will be able to add cuttings from the yard, shredded newspaper and some smelly waste (bones for instance) to the compost. It’s better not to add bones or waste food, since these may encourage rats and stray animals.
Cardboard and paper waste may be used in composting; and around plants to keep weeds down.

You may want to encourage your community to place collection bins for the different recyclables. Seek information and participate in the THA recycling and waste disposal plan.

Step 3:
Think about how much of your waste comes to your home as part of what you purchase in the grocery, or market or store.
If you carry your own reusable bag when you go shopping (to the grocery, the market or the mall) you can refuse the plastic bag that seems to be part of every purchase.
Fill and carry your reusable water bottle.
Refuse plastic straws.
When the grass or bush at the roadside or in gardens are cut, why are they put into plastic garbage bags. Where do these bags go? Better use of cuttings might be around growing trees or in compost.
Wherever possible, try to minimize the plastic bags or wrappings that accompany every purchase.

Step 4:
Become more aware of where waste goes in Tobago. Are there waste dumps in your village? Is there regular collection by the contractors who collect your garbage? Where does your garbage go? Are there dumps that are open to scavenging dogs, or on a drain that goes to the sea? Most of the garbage collected in Tobago is supposed to go to the landfill at Studley Park? Do you know where this is? Could you visit? Form a community or school group and make your project  "what happens to waste" that is collected in your area.

Rosanna Farmer, Plastikeep founder and operator, believes that individuals working in communities are the key to reducing, re-using and recycling waste streams. Over the long-term, it is possible for community-based organisations to create and support business based on the recapture of materials from waste streams.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the framework for waste management and recycling is supported by legislation and policy already articulated. The Beverage Container Bill of 1999 allows for recovery of plastic and glass bottles, cans, tetrapaks and cardboard containers through a deposit and refund system. At this time, the refund is only applied on glass bottles from Carib Glass, the company which also accepts all other glass bottles for recycling.

The Integrated Solid Waste/ Resource Management Policy of 2012 ambitiously articulated a strategy for waste management that would be led by Local Government with participation from private and public sector organisations, communities and NGOs. It envisages a holistic approach where citizens take responsibility, understand the processes by which waste is generated, and take part in finding solutions to reduce waste and to recycle, recover and re-use materials and products. Behavioural change takes place at personal and household and community levels; new information, technology and opportunities should create continuous learning cycles.

The National Environmental Policy was adopted in Parliament in 2006. Although the policy proposes that the power to protect the environment should rest in the hands of citizens’ groups and communities, the policy recognizes the government’s role in managing and penalizing polluters especially in the industrial and mining sectors.

The challenge now is to get citizens on board, through public information and sustained activities especially in schools and community groups.

We need to be like Barbados! A site adjacent to the landfill in Barbados has been turned into an industrial facility where garbage is sorted: plastic, glass, metal and electronic, cardboard and organics. Sustainable Barbados is a private-public sector partnership intended to reduce waste to the landfill while recovering and re-using materials. It is already creating employment, and a viable business from composting. The Sustainable Barbados Recycling Centre is located at Vaucluse in the Parish of St. Thomas, Barbados, on a 35-acre site.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

12 Days of Christmas in the Deep Sea off Tobago

In 2016, Jahson Alemu took us to the Buccoo Reef for creatures to represent ‘12 Days of Christmas.’ To celebrate the 2017 season, marine scientist Diva Amon takes us into the deep ocean! One and half kilometers deep, off the east coast of Trinidad and Tobago, we'll find creatures you can't imagine. Marvel at this Christmas tribute to twelve deep sea inhabitants. There are more wonders lurking in the deep ocean than we know! (All photos courtesy the Ocean Exploration Trust.)

On the first day of Christmas:
One swimming sea cucumber (Enypniastes eximia)
 Enypniastes eximia is a deep-sea species of sea cucumber (or holothurian) that, unusually, spends a large portion of its life swimming!

On the second day of Christmas,
Two chimaeras (Hydrolagus affinis)

Hydrolagus chimaeras are also known as spookfish or rabbitfish and are closely related to sharks and rays. They have a venomous spine in front of the dorsal fin. This particular individual also has a large white parasite just behind the pelvic fin on its left side.

On the third day of Christmas
Three serpent stars (Asteroschema sp.)

Asteroschema serpent stars are closely related to brittle stars and basket stars. They get their name from the sinuous movement of their long thin arms as they coil around the branches of deep-sea corals.

 On the fourth day of Christmas 
Four eelpout fish (Pachycara caribbaeum)

Pachycara caribbaeum is an eelpout fish known only from two small deep-sea areas in the Caribbean (the El Pilar methane seeps off Trinidad and Tobago and the Von Damm hydrothermal-vent field in the Cayman Trench). These are known to predate on the numerous shrimp also found at these chemosynthetic locations.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
Five siphonophores (Erenna sp.)
Siphonophores are a group of colonial organisms that includes the well-known shallow-water Portuguese Man o’War. While this siphonophore may appear to be one organism, it is actually comprised of small individual animals known as zooids. They catch prey using sticky stinging cells.

On the sixth day of Christmas
Six octopuses (Graneledone n. sp.)

This is a new species of Graneledone octopus known only at the El Pilar seep sites off Trinidad and Tobago. Although not very much is known about this species yet, a close relative found in the Pacific, Graneledone boreopacifica, has the longest egg brooding or pregnancy period of any animal: a whopping 53 months!
On the seventh day of Christmas
Seven tubeworms (Lamellibrachia sp.)
Lamellibrachia tubeworms are found only at chemosynthetic habitats. They have no mouth or gut and instead rely on internal bacteria that use sulphide-rich chemicals seeping from the seafloor to create food. They can grow to two metres long and it is thought that they can live to be hundreds of years old.

On the eighth day of Christmas
Eight Golden crabs (Chaceon fenneri)

Golden Crabs (Chaceon fenneri) are known from as far south as Brazil and all the way up to the Gulf of Mexico. They are one of the main predators found at the El Pilar seep sites, where they were observed eating Bathymodiolus mussels. They were also observed mating, with the individual pictured laden with eggs.

On the ninth day of Christmas
Nine deep-sea corals (Plumarella sp.)

Contrary to what you may think, the deep-sea harbors the highest diversity of corals in our oceans. Unlike the shallow-water coral reefs like those found at Buccoo Reef, these deep-sea corals do not rely on sunlight and lack the symbiotic photosynthetic algae that produce food. Instead these catch particles passing in the water column. Deep-sea corals are extremely long lived (possibly thousands of years old) and provide complex three-dimensional habitat for many invertebrates and fish.

On the tenth day of Christmas
Ten deep-sea sponges (Haplosclerida n. sp.)
These deep-sea sponges are thought to be a new species and are only known from the El Pilar methane seeps off Trinidad and Tobago. They form a zone peripheral to the mussel beds, which are closest to the areas of hydrocarbon-rich seepage, where they number in the thousands. Next to nothing is known about these sponges but it is suspected given their location that they derive some benefit from the seepage.  

On the eleventh day of Christmas
Eleven methane-seep shrimp (Alvinocaris muricola)

Alvinocaris muricola are one of the most well known deep-sea species. They are found at methane seeps in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and have even been found living on a whale skeleton off Brazil! They are often seen within tubeworm bushes and mussel beds and are thought to have a varied diet (bacteria, marine snow and meiofauna).

On the twelfth day of Christmas
Twelve giant mussels (Bathymodiolus childressi)
Bathymodiolus mussels are the most conspicuous species at methane seeps. They rely on methane-rich fluid seeping from the seafloor, which is used by internal bacteria to create food, but can also filter feed on particles. These mussels are ecosystem engineers that modify the physical and chemical environment at chemosynthetic habitats, as well as provide hard substrate and shelter for many smaller species.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

St Giles and the Bird of Paradise

Meet the birds of Tobago’s offshore islands with Faraaz Abdool
This feature was published in Tobago Newsday, December 14, 2017
(All photos courtesy Faraaz Abdool)
No, we’re not talking about Giles the Hermit – but something that has a similar level of secrecy and a whole lot more majesty. The islands of St Giles at 11.34 degrees north latitude form the northernmost land mass that falls under the jurisdiction of Trinidad and Tobago. Located just off the north-eastern tip of Tobago, this gathering of rocky offshore islets is an ecologically important site for a host of different creatures. So much so that the critically acclaimed (not to mention mind-blowing) documentary series Blue Planet II features a segment that was filmed in the waters just off St Giles Island.
After being the property of Charlotteville Estates for one hundred years, the St Giles islands were deeded to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in 1965 – under the condition that they be designated a sanctuary. This proactive move more than fifty years ago has ensured that today, we can all enjoy observing the wildlife that frequents these rocky islets – in particular the seabirds that rely on a safe place in order to nest and raise future generations.
Adult Laughing Gull in breeding plumage, Little Tobago
A short distance around the north tip of Tobago lies an island that was formerly known as Bird of Paradise Island – after its introduced population of Greater Bird of Paradise. After the passage of Hurricane Flora in 1963, the Birds of Paradise were not able to recover and today, they can no longer be found on Little Tobago. We also know a lot more about the perils of non-native species – so although the intentions were noble, it is absolutely beneficial to our native species that the population did not survive. The Greater Bird of Paradise still lives on each TT hundred dollar bill though!
Brown Noddies with first year juvenile Laughing Gulls on St Giles
Open-ocean birds lead a vastly different lifestyle than the feathered friends we’re accustomed to. Sometimes for days, weeks, even months at a time they live with no land in sight. Some of these birds rest bobbing on the surface of the water; others get their shut-eye on the wing. When it’s time to nest, it’s a different story.
Bridled Tern and young on a crevice on St Giles
Pelagic terns such as Bridled and Sooty Terns can spend their non-breeding months almost anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean, although they do tend to follow warmer water. Both species breed on the islands of St Giles as well as on Little Tobago. Superficially very similar, the Sooty Terns tend to prefer the slightly more gentle cliffs of Little Tobago, almost as if they prefer the elbow room of an open nest; while the Bridled Terns will nest in crevices that will make anyone’s palms sweaty.
During their nesting period, the noisy Sooty Terns jostle for position among the hundreds of equally noisy Laughing Gulls that also nest on Little Tobago.
Laughing Gulls are not ocean going birds; they are a common and familiar sight around seashores on both Trinidad and Tobago. Around April each year, they all gather and migrate en masse to Little Tobago and St Giles to raise their young, whether they were spending their time in Plymouth or Point Fortin. Not only do they change location, they also change their appearance drastically. The rush of hormones that accompanies the courtship and breeding period transforms each adult Laughing Gull from a plain, drab bird to a striking black-headed specimen with a bill that seems to have been dipped in blood. Bright white crescents around their eyes complete their fresh, dressed-up look.
Another member of the family Laridae (that includes gulls and terns) is the Brown Noddy. Evidence of the relation is clear in the similarities in body structure. Brown Noddies do sport a silvery-white cap that looks like it has been carefully airbrushed on. Relatively social birds, they not only nest colonially, but will associate with other seabird species while feeding. It has been noted that when they arrive to a colonial nest-site for the very first time, they always do so under cover of darkness.
While on the topic of darkness, there is a bird that nests on these islands but only visits its offspring at night. Audubon’s Shearwaters do sometimes nest in crevices like Bridled Terns, but they also nest under dense vegetation or even in an underground burrow.
The breeding habits of all these birds make one point abundantly clear – populations are extremely susceptible to human interference. They are at their most vulnerable while they are raising their young – as are the chicks themselves – an activity that takes place at ground level. The reason these seabirds choose offshore islands to lay their eggs is simple: no terrestrial predators. This is why responsible human behaviour is mandatory at these special sites around the world in order to ensure their survival. A single cat or rat that makes it onto any of these islands can have disastrous consequences.
Sooty Tern jostling for space among the Laughing Gulls on Little Tobago
These birds endure untold hardships on a day to day basis: Sooty Terns rely on ocean predators to force small fish to the surface, Bridled Terns must find and follow the boundaries between ocean currents in order to eat. It isn’t easy to be covered in feathers that must be kept dry while your food is underwater!
The waters off of Tobago must, in no uncertain terms, be kept rich in order to continue to provide food for the next generation of graceful seabirds. And we have discussed here only half the recorded species that can be seen with relative ease at the correct time of year. Between April and August, you have a good chance of getting great views of these species.
If you want to visit these bird sanctuaries, be sure to go with a knowledgeable guide: Zolani Frank of Frank’s Tours is both expert boatman and birder, two necessary skills for an unforgettable experience.
Audubon shearwater chick in a nest burrow on Little Tobago. All photos by Faraaz Abdool

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Migrating to solar energy in Tobago

Ruben Smith of SM Solar, continues his discussion about how the villages of tiny Tobago could set solar power in motion, by asserting characteristic solidarity and co-operative approaches. TTEC has the power to facilitate the process while helping itself to new future business.

 “The only true and sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity.”

Why should Tobago turn on solar power? Because it can, and if it did, would be in the vanguard of sustainable small islands.

If we were to look at how a small Tobago village, say a Castara or a Charlotteville or even a Cove Estate, would migrate to using solar power, it might be less difficult to envisage an empowered future. One of the keys to optimum benefit from an alternative energy source (such as solar or wind) is the co-operative. Villages and residential developments able to foster a strong and effective community ethos are the most likely to succeed. Some of the newest residential developments, industrial estates and mall complexes are excellent candidates for solar power.

Any existing cooperative such as the Castara Tourism Development Association or Charlotteville Estates with a membership structure could negotiate and secure financial arrangements on behalf of members; in this case, with TTEC and financial institutions such as banks, mortgage or lending agencies.

Public sites like the museum at Fort King George are eligible candidates for sustainable energy installation.
The relationship with TTEC is based on the fact that they have created the grid. We are fortunate indeed in the distribution system that has been installed over most of the country; and which will facilitate the next step towards the use of renewable energy. TTEC must approve designs and the installation of equipment for the distribution of any energy supply in our country. Most TTEC meters are bi-directional, so it should be simple to develop a net metering system. There is nothing to stand in the way of negotiating with the utility towards use of an alternate supply, like solar.

An important step would be financing of the system from traditional sources such as banks, mortgage companies, credit unions; or even non-traditional sources, say a green fund or small grant provider. At this time, the financial industry needs to be educated and open to the possibility of new business. A solar system is a fixed asset. It may be considered a home improvement project, but it is in effect a long-term investment. Most solar panels have 25-year warranties; so you are looking at plans that may be structured along the lines of a mortgage.  It would be interesting to see which local bank is first to take up the challenge to finance solar systems.

Improvements in technology for solar panels and the “balance of system” (kiosks, circuitry and storage batteries) have resulted in sturdier and smaller storage systems; automated to respond to fluctuations or intermittencies in sunlight. They can be monitored and controlled remotely and wirelessly, from your phone or computer. When such a system is installed, members of the community need to become educated, empowered in their own interest.

Servicing the loan, maintenance and operation of a solar system are jobs that belong within the community/ co-operative. The system can be expanded to new houses or buildings for new members of the village. The co-op can sell electricity and find ways to ensure the sustainability and expandability of the system. Of course, individual householders can choose to install solar systems for their own use. However, the advantages of a co-operative approach are many and should be obvious: collecting the sunlight, sharing the risk and responsibility and reducing upfront cost to the users.

Advances in solar systems are happening so quickly now that it is estimated that by 2019, the tariff of electricity generated from this would be close to TTEC’s current domestic rate. Saule Technology in Poland is currently working on technology that offers solar foil that can be applied like contact film, ultra-thin, flexible, efficient and will adhere to almost any surface. The advantages are obvious for old or existing structures.

The Eco-Industrial Development Company of Tobago (E-IDCOT) at Cove Estate could easily aim to generate 50% of its energy needs from the sun over the next two years, thereby reducing electricity from natural gas.

Tobago, in effect, might be the place where TTEC could introduce and promote alternative energy generation and supply, creating a model for its sustainable business of the future.

Scientists around the world agree that renewable energy sources can result in a cleaner world. “The International Solar Energy Society (ISES) envisions a world with 100% renewable energy for everyone used wisely and efficiently.” ISES has been in existence since 1954. Solar Energy International (SEI) was established in 1991 to educate and empower technicians in the development and installation of renewable energy sources. The University of Trinidad and Tobago with the support of SEI and the ISES regional representative is currently developing courses for the general public in photovoltaic installation with the participation of the government agencies. It remains for the energy sector companies in our country to expand the definitions of their businesses. 

Ruben Smith advocates alternative energy sources for sustainability.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Deep Ocean has no Borders

Journey with Diva Amon, a deep-sea biologist who has explored the deep ocean in Antarctica, the Atlantic and the Pacific. She has experience in chemosynthetic habitats and anthropogenic impacts on the deep sea. You can find out more via her Twitter ( and her website (

We now know that the seas around Trinidad and Tobago boast unique and ecologically important deep-sea methane seeps. It is useful that we have taken the first steps to answer the most basic of questions about the Caribbean deep ocean, “What lives there?” But what about even more complex questions such as “How do species find and colonize these relatively small and patchy chemosynthetic habitats in the huge expanse of the deep ocean?”
To get between islands, birds can fly, reptiles can raft over on flotsam, and many shallow water marine animals (fish, marine mammals, turtles, etc.) can swim the long distances, but what about deep-sea animals like the Bathymodiolus mussels, Alvinocaris shrimp and Lamellibrachia tubeworms that inhabit chemosynthetic habitats? Recent studies have shown that many of the species found at the deep-sea sites off Trinidad and Tobago have also been observed at sites on Kick’Em Jenny off Grenada, off Barbados, in the Cayman Trench and even as far as the Gulf of Mexico. But if many of these methane-seep inhabitants are unable to move, how do these far-ranging sites have these species in common?
The adults may be permanently attached (or sedentary) but their offspring are not! Many of the seep species release their young into the water column, where they hitch a ride in the currents. The Caribbean region boasts a predominantly easterly-north-easterly current suggesting that the seeps off Trinidad and Tobago may be a source of species for the more northerly chemosynthetic sites of the Caribbean. But how long would the epic journey from Trinidad and Tobago to the Gulf of Mexico take for a juvenile mussel? And is that even possible?! Well, that depends on the depth that the larvae travel at and the duration of the larval life span, of which very little is known. However, a recent study reported that the larvae of a seep mussel (Bathymodiolus childressi) and a seep snail (Bathynerita naticoidea) migrate into shallow waters (<100m depth) allowing them to take advantage of faster surface currents that may facilitate long-distance dispersal. Amazingly, it is estimated that B. naticoidea is able to disperse for 7–12 months, whereas B. childressi could migrate for up to 16.5 months. Additionally, it is thought that deep-sea larvae originating around Trinidad and Tobago had the potential of colonizing virtually the entire Caribbean area and even the southeastern Gulf of Mexico.
As some of the deep-sea animals found off Trinidad and Tobago have been found across the Caribbean and as far north as the Gulf of Mexico, having a regional understanding is essential. It reminds us that there are no borders in our deep ocean and is key to comprehending our current and future impacts in these areas. As a result, I will be exploring the deep sea of the Gulf of Mexico in the hope that we can gain a better understanding of those habitats and in turn that it will help to improve our knowledge of the Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean deep sea. But even more excitingly, I hope that you will join me for the journey!
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer berthed at the NOAA Ford Island facility located in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The ship will be leaving from Key West, Florida for the upcoming expedition. Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
My upcoming expedition utilizes an incredible technological innovation called telepresence. Telepresence uses satellite technology to transmit live images and data from ships and ROVs at sea, providing a real-time portal into the excitement of deep-sea exploration and research for scientists, stakeholders, and members of the public (like you!) onshore. Yes, that’s right, every day from 30th November to the 20th December you can be a deep-sea explorer! We will be sending the ROVs Deep Discoverer and Seirios from the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer down into the depths to explore areas of the Gulf of Mexico that have never been visited, and beaming the images to you in your home, at work or anywhere you have an internet connection. There will be 21 dives including at potential methane seeps, shipwrecks, coral gardens and even some deep-sea canyons! Will they yield new and exciting life forms and landscapes? You’ll just have to follow along to find out!
Please visit for the live video stream and more information about the expedition. ROV dives with live streaming will be conducted every day from approximately 8am to 4pm from 30th November to 20th December. You can also find the live video stream on NOAA Ocean Explorer Facebook and Youtube.
Bathymodiolus mussels (both dead and alive) are seen underneath a carbonate overhang. Also visible under this overhang is methane hydrate. Between the mussels, urchins and sea stars can also be seen. This site looks remarkably similar to seeps seen off Trinidad and Tobago. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2014.