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Freedom, heartbreak and the ancient forces of Montserrat

5 minute read

Dr Peter Richardson

18 Aug 2021

We're part of an exciting project on the island of Montserrat, one of the UK’s Caribbean Overseas Territories, working with local communities to help recover and manage turtle populations.

Key Marine Conservation Society team members Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery and Amdeep Sanghera, UK Overseas Territory Officer, are currently working on the island of Montserrat as part of an important project to support the recovery of local turtle populations.

Over the course of the project they'll be providing us with updates from the island - and sharing some of the beautiful moments they experience whilst supporting local organisations and communities with their work.

This blog post comes from Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery, Marine Conservation Society

Almost a week out of quarantine and it feels like a month – in a good way – we have met so many kind people, seen so many turtles and experienced, for the first time, volcanic landscapes that have ignited powerful emotions.

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Credit: Nicola Weber

First days of freedom

On the first day of freedom, after our negative PCR test results came through, the key local partner Chief Fisheries Officer Alwyn Ponteen took us on a quick tour south to nearby Foxes Bay on the edge of the volcano-safety exclusion zone.

Foxes Bay is a turtle nesting beach in a sweeping bay and we had eyed it impatiently from our accommodation during quarantine. It was mid-morning and the black, volcanic sand was hot underfoot. As we suspected when scanning the beach through binoculars each morning that week, there were several fresh turtle tracks, all made by large female green turtles seeking a place to dig a nest and lay their eggs. Some had nested successfully too - the season had definitely started!

We then drove back along a rise on our way out of the exclusion zone and were confronted by the heart-breaking, devastated landscape of the abandoned capital Plymouth sprawling down the foothills to the sea. We had all seen pictures of the once thriving town after it was smothered in ash and rocks from volcanic eruptions in the mid-1990s, but to see the extent of the crushing destruction laid out in front of you was utterly gut-wrenching.

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Mount Soufriere, Montserrat

Credit: Nicola Weber

The evidence of the immense power of the volcanic blasts was shocking – with apartment block-sized boulders spewed far out from the Soufriere Hills volcano and scattered across the half-buried town and surrounding landscape.

I have never seen anything like it and my emotions ran high, made me think differently about the likely tone and mood of parts of Community Voice Method film we would be making. I anticipate moving local accounts of that explosive and pivotal moment in the island’s history during our filmed interviews with the people here.

The evidence of the immense power of the volcanic blasts was shocking – with apartment block-sized boulders spewed far out from the Soufriere Hills volcano.

Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery, Marine Conservation Society
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Adult male green turtle, Isle's Bay, Montserrat

Credit: Amdeep Sanghera

Swimming with turtles

The next morning the team decided to get into the sea in Isles Bay – it had been tempting us every hot day during quarantine. Each morning during those restricted days we could also see several pairs of mating turtles close inshore in the bay, and we were keen to see if we could snorkel with them.

The water was clear and calm, shallow over a seabed of black sand mixed with boulders that had washed down the now ash-filled Belham River and into the bay during the landslides and mudflows immediately after the eruptions 26 years ago. A few small orange corals were trying to encrust the algae-covered boulders, and shoals of reef fish brightly flickered and flashed blues, purples, reds, yellows and greens to add a little colour to the dark volcanic seascape. But the turtles were amazing – and huge.

In all my years of marine turtle conservation and research I have never been in the sea with so many big adult turtles. These were all green turtles, the same ones we had noticed during quarantine, but now up close and personal.

There were single adult male and female green turtles, as well as mating couples, all around me, sometimes as many as five big turtles in close proximity at any one time – more passing by and appearing in the distance every time I swum to a new spot.

There were single adult male and female green turtles, as well as mating couples, all around me, sometimes as many as five big turtles in close proximity at any one time.

Dr Peter Richardson, Head of Ocean Recovery, Marine Conservation Society
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Mating green turtles, Isle's Bay, Montserrat

Credit: Amdeep Sanghera

The single males and mating couples were usually quite skittish, swimming away at speed when they noticed my approach, but the females were much more relaxed. They carefully watched me come near, looked at me a while and then gently paddled away on their business – no rush, no stress.

Some females even approached me to take a closer look, coming to within touching distance, curiously gazing at me for a few minutes through ancient eyes before slowly swimming on their turtley way – really quite magical.

The single males and mating couples were usually quite skittish, swimming away at speed when they noticed my approach, but the females were much more relaxed.

Dr Peter Richardson
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Credit: Peter Richardson

In the first few days we spent several hours in the water with these graceful beauties, and each time I came away enchanted and exhilarated. Sea turtles exert a powerful force on me – I could feel myself healing after months of hardship.

This is going to be a research project unlike any I have experienced before – bring it on!

Next time we’ll tell you about some of the fascinating local people we have started to meet and interview, a boat trip through the volcano exclusion zone and back, and wet nights on sandy beaches waiting for the return of nesting turtles…

Big thanks to the UK government’s Darwin Plus Initiative, the Government of Montserrat and our partners at the University of Exeter. Read more about the project here.

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