Thursday, July 28, 2016

One Caribbean with sea turtles

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her exploration of marine Tobago. In this issue, she discusses the work of Dr Michelle Cazabon-Mannette who surveyed sea turtles on the reefs of Tobago.This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on July 28, 2016. Follow Anjani Ganase on twitter @AnjGanase
In some of these columns, I will share the stories of other persons who are connected to coral reefs and the ocean. These connections are made in many ways, through occupation, research, sports or leisure. I will begin with marine biologist, Dr. Michelle Cazabon-Mannette, who grew up in the north of Trinidad and was always curious about the natural world. This curiosity eventually led to her discovery of the underwater world when – at 16 - she got the opportunity to learn to dive in the British Virgin Islands. This opened up a new world for exploration, and she continued to scuba dive on the reefs of Tobago. Her interest in the marine world developed with her studies in science, and she eventually focused on the life history of sea turtles.

Dr Michelle Cazabon-Mannette and a Hawksbill turtle, photo by Lee Ann Beddoe

Not much is known about the life of the sea turtle as it spends 99% of its life offshore. Currently, the bulk of the research is focused on the one percent of the life when female sea turtles return to their natal shores to nest. This occurs at a minimum of fifteen years after they were born and not much is known about their movements and habits before nesting, or even between breeding seasons. Michelle earnestly wanted to help fill this gap of knowledge. Knowing that the reefs of Tobago were home to young Green and Hawksbill turtles – which she saw on recreational dives - she sought to use these reefs as her study site towards her PhD at the University of the West Indies.

It was essential to first get an idea about the population numbers of Green and Hawksbill turtles living on reefs around Tobago, since no monitoring programmes had ever been done on these non-nesting turtles before. To do this, she regularly dived several reef sites along Tobago, both on the leeward and windward sides of the island, to get an estimate of turtle numbers and age groups by measuring and recording the sizes of their shells. It was generally understood that turtles that live along our reefs were born on beaches far away from this island, and Michelle wanted to find out where our local populations were born. In her surveys, she took samples of tissue to do genetic work. Her analyses suggest that most of the juvenile hawksbills foraging around Tobago come from nesting beaches in Cuba, Barbados and Puerto Rico. Imagine Cuban turtles living on our reefs! These are the true citizens of the Caribbean, mating and nesting in places, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, then foraging and growing in Tobago.

There was another purpose to understanding the sea turtle populations along Tobago reefs and their connections with other Caribbean islands. Prior to 2011, it was legal to harvest sea turtles at sea in Trinidad and Tobago during part of the year, and unfortunately sea turtles continue to be taken from the sea and nesting beaches illegally and sold. Turtle meat may have been a viable product for fisherfolk, but globally, sea turtles are currently considered threatened with extinction. It is necessary to consider all the costs that come with purchasing turtle meat. It compromises the livelihoods of others who work and live alongside these ecosystems, whether it is through the tourism and fishing industry or the conservation efforts made by citizens not just locally but regionally.

Moreover, we need to assess the ecological value of the sea turtles that aid in maintaining healthy coral reefs and sea grass habitats. Green turtle foraging promotes healthy, productive sea grass habitats. By grazing the seagrass, they encourage the seagrass to grow quickly, but also maintain short blades so they don't get old and decay. All of this helps seagrass beds to stay healthy and support a diversity of species including commercial fish species. Green turtles and hawksbills also help promote healthy coral reefs by grazing on algae and sponges respectively. Algae and sponge, if left to grow unchecked, can overgrow coral and lead to a loss of diversity and contribute to deterioration of the ecosystem. Through the maintenance of these ecosystems, sea turtles enhance the fishing and tourism industries; they are our partners in ecosystem management.

One of the main goals of Michelle’s research was to understand the value that people placed on turtle conservation and the enjoyment of encountering turtles, while diving on Tobago reefs. The outcomes of these findings can aid in promoting alternate avenues for obtaining economic value through sea turtles conservation and possibly ecotourism. How we care or don’t care for the sea turtle will be felt much farther than our own shores in the south Caribbean, so it is our responsibility to be guardians of these creatures for the sake of all our coastal ecosystems and economies.
Hawksbill turtles on the reef. Photo by Ryan P. Mannette

Michelle is one among a new generation of Caribbean scientists who are going to ensure that the natural life of our islands is conserved. She is happy to share her information with youngsters who are interested in ocean sciences. She continues to do research on Tobago sea turtles and is actively involved in their conservation and protection. If you would like to know more about her research and local conservation efforts, you can follow her on twitter: @turtlegirl_TT. For more about her research, use this link:, a short film ‪”Beyond The Beach” is based on the turtle monitoring programme designed and led by Michelle while working with turtle conservation organisations, Turtle Village Trust (TVT) in Trinidad and Save our Sea Turtles (SOS) in Tobago.

Follow Michelle on twitter @turtlegirl_TT
Q What about turtles fascinated you enough to study them?

Sea turtles have a very mysterious life. They spend 99% of their lives at sea, and travel great distances, but most of what we know about them is based on what we can learn when females visit beaches to nest. Little by little more studies are giving us a look at what goes on with turtles the rest of the time, under the sea. After I graduated with my first degree in biology in 2005 and I was exploring ideas for research, I realized that here in Trinidad and Tobago, we are lucky to have hawksbill and green turtles feeding offshore. I saw it as a great mystery I could explore. It's always a thrill to see a turtle underwater - they are powerful swimmers and they move effortlessly through the water. They are also curious and sometimes approach you for a closer look too.   

Q What is your research about and why are you interested in this?

For my PhD research, I set out to learn as much as I could about sea turtles offshore Tobago. Green and hawksbill turtles were harvested by fisherfolk, but there was no data on the population, or on the harvest. This was the big gap I wanted to address, so we could make informed decisions about the turtles and their harvest. I completed scuba dives around the island to learn where turtles could be found and how abundant they are. I used a questionnaire to learn about how many fishers harvested sea turtles, how many turtles they harvested and how much they relied on the income from turtles. 

Besides the economic value of sea turtle products like meat and eggs, sea turtles can have value in other ways that may be overlooked because this value is not captured in any market or form of trade. We know that people will pay to see turtles nest on beaches, but what about the turtles that we have offshore? So I used questionnaires to learn about the economic value of turtles in terms of how much value people place on their conservation, and how much value turtles add to the experience of scuba diving. These are important values that are part of Tobago's tourism product.

Finally, based on other studies from the region, we understood that these sea turtles in Tobago's waters were born elsewhere in the region, and turtles nesting on our shores would spend most of their time far from our shores, but we didn't know if there was a strong link to any population in particular. I collected samples from hawksbills on our nesting beaches and at sea, and analysed their DNA to compare with other populations to understand how these turtles are linked to other countries in the region. 

I was interested in all these areas because I wanted to gather important information for management, but I think this information is also of interest to the general public and can help inspire people to care about the conservation of these species.

Q What is the most interesting thing you've learned from your research, about the turtle population living on Tobago reefs?

The genetic results suggest that most of the juvenile hawksbills foraging around Tobago come from nesting beaches in Cuba, Barbados and Puerto Rico. Even though Tobago is quite a small island, the results from the genetic study also suggest that the group of hawksbill turtles feeding on the leeward coast is distinct from the group on the windward coast. We have some ideas why this might be the case, but more work has to be done to explore this.    

Q What are the functional roles of turtles living on Tobago's coastal ecosystems and how are these roles important to the livelihood of Tobagonians?

Sea turtles rely on healthy coastal ecosystems, but they also help promote healthy coastal ecosystems. And healthy ecosystems provide us with goods and services that we all rely on, but they are especially important to anyone who makes a livelihood from fishing or tourism.

Green turtles promote healthy, productive seagrass habitats by grazing on the seagrass. By grazing, they encourage seagrasses to grow quickly, yet they keep the blades cropped short so they don't get old and decay. They also contribute to the cycling of nutrients. All of this helps seagrass beds to stay healthy and support a diversity of species including commercial fish species. Green turtles and hawksbills both help promote healthy coral reefs by grazing on algae and sponges respectively. Algae and sponge, if left to grow unchecked, can overgrow coral and lead to a loss of diversity and contribute to deterioration of the ecosystem. We all rely on coastal ecosystems to some extent, but that is especially true of anyone who makes a livelihood from fishing or tourism   

Q How can people find out more about your research?

The thesis "Ecology and use of nearshore foraging sea turtle populations around Tobago, with an emphasis on hawksbills" will be lodged at Alma Jordan Library, UWI, St. Augustine by the end of 2016.

See also the film Beyond the Beach, protecting sea turtles, on youtube:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Owning our Paradise

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, continues her appeal to treasure our priceless natural resources, and urges a return to the more entrepreneurial and direct relationship between host homes and visitors, especially in Tobago. This feature "Owning our Paradise" was first published in Tobago Newsday, on Thursday July 21, 2016

Over the last few years, I have been lucky enough to visit coral reef environments across the Caribbean and in the Pacific. I have observed that many people who “live in paradise” are able to benefit and succeed in the tourism industry, when their first priority is to care about their own livelihoods and to protect the coastal ecosystems in their backyards. These fortunate communities are those that know that these natural habitats are their tourism products. And if you are not happy in your backyard, why will anyone else be interested? It also goes beyond that: there is no substitute for home.

I often think back to the time when I lived in Tobago, how much I enjoyed being able to swim laps in Grange bay after work everyday. For this simple pleasure, I felt so lucky to live the life that others envy, and would pay a lot of money for. Tobago is our little piece of paradise, and we ought to preserve it, first for ourselves so that we might share it with others.

Let me share some examples of things that other people living in paradise have done to keep their homes a paradise, which become their drawing cards for tourism.  First stop Hawai’i. On the island of Kaui’i, the law ensures that no building is taller than a coconut tree. This law was passed in order to conserve its coastal beauty, and to prevent high-rise hotels from blocking the views for the resident. This has not prevented tourists from flocking to this Garden Isle. The Na-Pali coast of Kaua’i is a natural wonder untouched by “development.” It has become a favourite natural setting for movies such as Jurassic park and Indiana Jones.

View of the Na-Pali coast, Kaua'i, photo by Anjani Ganase

Next stop Mexico, to a small island just off the coast of Cancun, known as Isla Mujeres. Cancun has suffered severe environmental damage through the loss of coastline to hotels. However Isla Mujeres remains a stark contrast to the hotel peninsula of Cancun. Isla Mujeres is home to about 12000 inhabitants who reside next their very own coral reef, known as Manchones reef.  This reef has suffered greatly over the years from physical damage from snorkellers, divers and boats, and in an attempt to reduce the physical pressure, Dr. Jaime Gonzalez Cano, the local head of Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (SEMARNAT) took an unconventional approach.  He initiated a system in which the divers, and snorkellers were redirected to an underwater sculpture museum, set on the sandy flats in about 5 m of water. For this, an English artist - Jason de Caires Taylor- was hired to create the sculptures. Taylor used local residents as his models for the sculptures; this ensured their physical and cultural connection to the reef and concern for its visitors ( I was lucky to dive among these sculptures, and was in awe of how nature added to this artwork through natural growth of reef organisms, such as algae, sponges and coral, on these sculptures, changing the expressions of these sculptures over time.

Similar plans have been made for Tobago’s Buccoo reef using the creativity of our very own masman-artist Peter Minshall. Although this plan is clever, it will only work to its full potential with the additional attention to improving water quality and regulating fishing to ensure recovery of the reef.
Isla Mujeres, Underwater Museum Photo courtesy XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Perhaps the most laudable example of a country protecting their paradise at the highest level is the Republic of Palau. An island nation in the Pacific, Palau, is closely connected to its land and marine habitats, including coral reefs, for food and livelihoods. In acknowledging this relationship, the Palauan government has promised to conserve its natural resources. This is an example of a country that has identified their biggest asset, their “island home.” And it is actively protected at the community and the government levels to ensure that it continues to provide income in the long-term, not just from tourism but also from sustainable fisheries. I hope one day to visit Palau, with the comfort and confidence that the coral reefs and the local communities will be thriving and healthy for many decades.

Over the last few years, there have also been shifts in the curiosity and expectations of travellers. People no longer want to be penned in all-inclusive resorts. They are looking for authentic relationships and experiences in the places they visit. This is true especially for the regular budget traveller, for whom, new online forums, such as AirBNB (, have opened up a world of opportunity for people living in paradise who are willing open their homes to travellers, offering a room or even a guest house, for the experience of living like a local, in simple comfort. These opportunities bring the market, the income, the story telling and connections right to your doorstep. Authentic hospitality and original experiences are possible when the host and guest meet each other without intermediaries. This can be the platform for an entrepreneurial approach in Tobago. The government’s role in this would be to support paradise with legislation, and host homes with tax and improvement incentives.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Learning to care

The first time I visited Buccoo Reef in Tobago, I was 13, a precocious teen on holiday with the family. In the early sixties, travel between Trinidad and Tobago by air was still a precious event reserved for the elite or those, like us, having a first-in-a-lifetime experience. That's where the Buccoo Reef trip fitted.

I remember how blue the water was - a blue reserved for the pages of magazines or posters featuring that idyllic Pigeon Point jetty like a finger pointing to the horizonless expanse of bluest blue in our two islands. At the Nylon Pool, we floated as if suspended in sky. I marvelled at the coral, white as bleached bones. I thought then, that was the natural colour of coral. At that time, some 30 years after the marine park was opened (in the 1930s) as we walked in our plastic sandals, we were cautioned not to handle any coral, not to chase the fish. Even then, there were whispers of the decay of the reef, as if touring it was a surreptitious activity, reserved for the privileged few. I did not understand then what parts of the reef were dying, what parts were alive.

Beached bones of the sea

Buccoo Reef has been a long time dying. This notion conveyed a sense of urgency about visiting (before it dead) rather than a need to care for it. And even though the next time we ventured on a Reef tour - when I returned from university in 1973 - it was in a glass-bottomed boat, I had no pleasure in it. I knew by then that the white bones of the sea are signs of death on the reef but very little more.

Twenty years later, in 1990, we were a family with two small children. Our vacation that year took us to the other end of Tobago, Man o War Bay. Our visit to Little Tobago with Kenny Lee on his friend Frank's glass-bottomed boat provided a rare view of reefs at Speyside, around Goat Island and the then famed "biggest brain coral in the world." It opened my eyes to a wonderland that I could never before have imagined.

Precious document, published at the end of years of research

Kenny had recently moved to Tobago to live, and his passion - more than a pastime - was scuba diving and underwater photography. He was intent on working for himself, through photography and selling postcards. Tobago is a picture postcard place; you can't point your camera and take a bad photo. But his underwater photos were magic. Soon the book with his photographs was published.

Underwater photos by ©Kenneth Lee from the book A Guide to the Coral Reefs of Tobago

This definitive publication A Guide to the Coral Reefs of Tobago, by Richard S Laydoo, featured underwater photos by ©Kenneth Lee. It was published by the ©Institute of Marine Affairs.

A Guide to the Coral Reefs of Tobago, written and coordinated by Richard S. Laydoo, was a project of the Institute of Marine Affairs, and featured more than 30 underwater photos by Kenny Lee. It was published in 1991 after some six years of research and surveys. Twenty-five years on, Laydoo's guide remains a definitive text on the reefs of Tobago. It is instructional and informative, but at the same time, readable and a lasting record of Tobago's reefs at the turn of the century.

This Guide is a modest paper-back, 48 pages, with full colour photos and illustrations. The Appendix is a checklist of common reef organisms referred to in the text. The Glossary defines the technical terms; it is a vocabulary familiar to the sixth form biologist.  It was easy to take it for granted that such a guide was simple to conjure into being. It was easy to understand, bringing knowledge to the uninitiated, without conditions or provisos. If you look at the Acknowledgements and Credits, you realise that it takes a community of skills to produce a comprehensive and lasting record such as this: "the village that raises a child!"

It takes a wide cross-section of a national community to publish a book of research and knowledge. It takes a whole island community to protect its marine and on-shore environment.

All along the Caribbean (north) coast of Tobago, accessible reefs can be reached by strong swimmers or snorkelers. But it's best to learn and tour with responsible dive operators.

Apart from the book, the Tobago dive operators and fisherfolk are the repositories for knowledge of these reefs. But how does the ordinary person living in Buccoo or Bacolet, Whim or Golden Lane, come to such knowledge. More importantly how does the Trinbagonian child learn to respect and cherish the sea around as much as the shores he inhabits.

We are told that we learn to care about what we see every day. But it's not that simple. Knowledge and appreciation of the marine environment is a complex affair. We could gaze at the sea for hours every day and still not know what goes on below the waves; or that the white bones of the sea that wash ashore are not signs of life. The young Tobago resident deserves to be as informed about  the health, safety and sustainability of the seas around, as she is about the Main Ridge Reserve, the oldest protected rainforest in the Western Hemisphere.

This book written and compiled by Richard Laydoo over 25 years ago is a good start as an intro to the world underwater. Next should be marine field trips. Next too, the campus of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) Marine Sciences for which ground was broken at Buccoo. At the very least, let's have a marine sciences research institute in Tobago; let's see our people as scientists and researchers, curators of the splendid seas and fragrant lands to which we are born.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Precious Buccoo Reef

Anjani Ganase, Trinbagonian marine biologist, begins a weekly column on the value of coral reefs to our islands and people, and especially Tobago. This, the first of her series, was published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday, July 14, 2016

Anjani Ganase is completing her PhD in Coral Reef surveys

The Buccoo reef is considered a national and natural icon by Trinbagonians. Yet few of us have had the luxury of exploring beyond the upper edges of the reef, barely a couple metres below the sea surface. To fully understand the true beauty and importance of the Buccoo reef, you need to dive deeper in order to discover and understand how the reef functions. 

The Buccoo reef, like many other reefs around the world, is a metropolis for marine life, where corals – stationary animals that grow by building a limestone skeleton – create homes for animals, such as fish, lobster and other invertebrates, sponges, anemones, and plants that live and grow on and among the coral skeleton. Worldwide, coral reefs, including the Buccoo reef, make up less than one percent of the world’s ocean but house 25% of all marine organisms; which is even higher than the diversity found in a tropical rainforest such as the Amazon. This means that in one glance at this reef, you are likely to see more living creatures in this one setting than ever before without even realising it. This is just one reason that coral reefs are considered so valuable to humans. They are our source of food and income, but also places of beauty, reverence and joy.

The Buccoo reef plays a vital role in sustaining the Tobago’s local fish population but it doesn’t do this on its own. The Buccoo reef connects the mangroves to the open ocean. By doing this ii connects habitats that are crucial to the life cycle of fish populations. Mangroves, such as the one present at No Man’s Land, act as nurseries to many fish and shark populations. As the fish grow they move on to the reefs, where they live as adults, or as adolescents before finally swimming out into the open ocean. In turn, the presence of fish on the reef, in particular herbivorous fish, such as parrot fish, help clear space for corals to grow by grazing away the algae. This connectivity with mangrove ecosystems is vital for the well-
being of the fish communities and the coral reef, and ultimately for us.

Finally, how are we connected to the reef? Water connects all ecosystems including our own. What we put in our waterways, down our drains, rivers and streams will always end up in the mangroves and coral reefs and affect the fish and corals. An unhealthy waterway will lead to an unhealthy coral reef and fish population, which will impact our fisheries, tourism and even our personal enjoyment of the ocean.

Therefore, next time you look upon the myriad of blues that we know as the Buccoo reef, think about the marine city that lives below, how it helps us and how we must protect it in return.

Over the next weeks, we will explore different aspects of marine life, and the importance to people like us who live on islands. Over the past five years, I have dived on reefs in Curacao, Australia, Hawaii and in the Caribbean. Tobago’s reefs are most special to me because this is where I learned to dive; this is where my love for our Ocean world developed and grew. 

If you want to have a look at an on-going project that I am involved in, visit this website

Graphic of Buccoo Reef system, by Julian Kenny (1976) which was used in Richard Laydoo's book A Guide to the Coral Reefs of Tobago (published 1991, Institute of Marine Affairs)