Filming Sea Turtles in Saipan

In May of 2016, we had the extraordinary opportunity to film endangered green sea turtles in Saipan. We never imagined that we would have the luck we would have, but the shocking reality of what we found was...well, shocking.

 Laura Sams, Stephani Gordon and Robert Sams filming turtles in Saipan.

Laura Sams, Stephani Gordon and Robert Sams filming turtles in Saipan.

Saipan is a small island in Micronesia, just a hop flight north of Guam...plus the additional 16 hours of flight time from the west coast. If you ever have the chance to visit - DO IT! It's a beautiful island with wonderful people and an amazing history. We received a NOAA grant with our friend Stephani Gordon of Open Boat Films to make a short film about sea turtles for kids in the region. It was a tall order.  The local nesting population of sea turtles in Saipan are in serious trouble from a variety of threats, including poaching, and as far as we knew, we likely wouldn't find any nesting turtles to film. We had written a story with the expectation that we would have to film our sea turtle footage elsewhere. But Lady Luck was watching over us it seems. An incredibly dedicated pair of turtle researchers, Tammy and Jesse, made the impossible happen. By the time we arrived, they had already spent several weeks of sleepless nights tracking the patterns of nesting turtles and tagging juvenile turtles around the island.

 Tammy shows Kaya Rasa how to measure a turtle.

Tammy shows Kaya Rasa how to measure a turtle.

As far as they could tell, only seven turtles were nesting on Saipan this year. Turtles lay eggs multiple times throughout a season, and Tammy had determined how many days apart each turtle would be nesting. She could tell us with pin-point accuracy the night, the beach, and the exact turtle she expected to find. And she was right! She put us on not one, but two nesting green sea turtles! We followed Tammy's instructions closely. Before we could approach the turtle, we waited for the signal from Jesse that the turtle had finished digging her hole and was laying her eggs - only then would she tolerate our presence. We crept up in the darkness and set up our cameras. Only red light was permitted, since that doesn't seem to bother the nesting turtles.  We could see her tracks where she had hauled her great body up from the water. A mother sea turtle is big (this one was close to 300 pounds) and her slow journey up to this point high on the beach must've felt like a marathon...well, half a marathon - she still had to go back down. Her underside was scratched and bloodied from the jagged reef at the water's edge. How vulnerable she looked. Unlike freshwater turtles, or tortoises on land, sea turtles can not pull themselves into their protective shells. A satellite tag had already been glued to this turtle's back - a sign that Tammy and Jesse had already met her before. Sitting in the presence of this nesting turtle felt unreal. It's like I had stepped back through time to some primal era when great beasts roamed the earth. I was suddenly in the presence of a dinosaur! What a privilege! And how did she know how to do this? How to find this beach? Just how far to climb? How deep to bury her eggs? And how to cover them up again? It's a sacred ritual mysteriously written in her code that has guided her since being born here long ago. We sat and watched her for a couple of hours, Tammy and Jesse recording data all the while, and I asked lots of questions. I have a zoology degree, but it's not often I have the chance to hang out with field researchers in the field. Their years of data have helped paint a picture of what's happening around Saipan. There are two kinds of turtles that live here, hawksbills and greens. Most of the turtles swimming around the island are juveniles that were born on islands far away like Yap or Palau. They make their way to Saipan where they will eat and grow and eventually, after many years, swim back to their home islands to breed and lay eggs. The turtles born on Saipan, however, travel to other islands like the Philippines or Japan where they will spend their youth before returning to Saipan as adults. These days, very few turtles found in the waters around Saipan were actually born here. Only seven mothers nested this year, and Tammy informed me that one of those had just been poached the previous night. She and Jesse had found her tracks where she had crawled up the beach, and the tire tracks of the poacher's truck who had stolen her for her meat. The turtle we were watching was now one of only six remaining mother turtles on this island. She would lay several clutches of eggs over these few months, but after this season, she would not return again for several years. And what about her babies? Poachers comb these beaches searching for freshly laid turtle eggs. Jesse informed me that he has a few tricks for covering her tracks and hiding the nest. He performed his disappearing magic as we watched the tired mother turtle make her way back to the sea.

 A hatchling green sea turtle reaches the ocean

A hatchling green sea turtle reaches the ocean

With so few native-born sea turtles left on Saipan, it's easy to feel like hope is lost for these ancient animals. But the following night brought an unexpected surprise that gave us hope. As Tammy and Jesse checked the beaches, they led us to a miracle - a writhing nest of newly hatched turtles wriggling their way out of the sand. Each one was only about as long as my thumb, and we did our best to film their frantic little journeys down for their first taste of saltwater. When the action was finished, Jesse dug up the nest to count the eggs - maybe 80 or so, many of which hadn't hatched. A handful of stragglers were uncovered and given their freedom, including an albino hatchling that Tammy said probably wouldn't survive. How many hatchlings do make it to adulthood? One out of a thousand? Ten thousand? Nobody really knows, but the odds aren't good. For sea turtles, it really is a numbers game. It takes a lot of nests each year to keep a population going. And that's why we had come to Saipan - to help give these animals a voice. To say "We were born here! We deserve a fighting chance so that our children will be born here! We are important!"

Our film is called My Haggan Dream. "Haggan" is a local word for green sea turtle. It will be shown in local schools and shared with educators around the region. Feel free to share it.