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swimming sea turtle underwater ocean

Interviews

CONSERVING SEA TURTLE POPULATIONS WITH KIRSTY SCOTT

Our Marine Conservation Intern has dived Bermuda’s coral reefs, studied the largely undiscovered Red Sea, experienced Saudi Arabia’s marine conservation initiatives, and now is embarking on her next adventure in Costa Rica. We caught up with Kirsty to hear about her conservation journey and her mission to protect endangered sea turtles.

Tell us a little about your background, why did you choose to study marine science?

I have always loved swimming in the sea and have adopted a fascination with fish and marine biology. Although the subject has always been of interest, I did not take it seriously as a career until my last year of school when I really looked into it. I realised I had all the necessary qualifications so chose to study it at university, and ultimately it was a great decision!

 

When at university did you have an opportunity to go abroad to study the subject further?

Throughout university I experienced many field courses in the UK which weren’t very glamorous. In my final year I travelled to Bermuda to the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science where we spent 10 days observing reefs and researching fish populations between two sites.

 

What led you to undertake your masters in Saudi Arabia?

After seeing Bermuda’s coral and this tropical, marine environment for the first time, I thought ‘wow’ this is incredible. This inspired me to go elsewhere to see more coral reefs with my own eyes. In 2017 I applied for an internship in the Red Sea, thinking I would end up in Egypt. I was surprised to locate in Saudi Arabia, and was even more surprised at its state-of-the-art facilities, so I chose to do my masters there also.

 

Can you describe what it’s like living and studying in Saudi Arabia?

There are definitely advantages and disadvantages. For marine science it is amazing as the coral reefs are right on your doorstep. There are so few places in the world where you can hop on a boat and in five minutes you have a phenomenal reef before you. I lived in a westernised compound so my view of Saudi was probably very different from the rest of the country – there are obvious differences with regards to the way you dress and act. Overall, I have no regrets and adored my experience.

 

What species were you studying in Saudi Arabia?

Initially, I was meant to study deep sea coral which I did for my bachelors, however in Saudi this would mean a lot of lab time. As the beach and coral was so close I was eager to be outside, surrounded by beautiful nature. I therefore decided to study sea turtles.

When sea turtles lay a nest, the temperature of the nest determines the number of males and females produced. As climate change has a direct effect on turtles, Saudi is an intriguing place to study them because the sand is naturally so hot already. The pivotal temperature is 29.2 degrees, however anything above 33 degrees in the sand leads to full mortality – sadly all of the turtles will die. In the summer months, the air temperature can reach 40 – 45 degrees which unfortunately coincides with the nesting season.

Studying sea turtles in Saudi is ideal for wider conservation work worldwide. If we understand what happens at the most thermal extreme, then we can predict what will happen at other sites across the globe.

Baby Turtle in Sao Tome

How would you describe the Red Sea for those who haven’t experienced it themselves?

It’s incredibly unique. The salinity worldwide is around 35, however in the Red Sea it reaches 40 so it is hyper saline and you can float easily. In summer the temperature reaches 30 – 35 degrees so it is perfect for diving – another reason why Saudi is a great destination to study.

The oceanography of the Red Sea is also intriguing. For example, its latitudinal gradients create varying temperatures and it has gradients in terms of productivity. The water is crystal clear and the coral is remarkable. I have dived in a number of places, however the Red Sea is one of the best.

 

Is the coral doing well because of strong conservation initiatives in place?

I don’t think the conservation work has been going long enough to decipher this, however I think it is down to coral adaptation as they have become used to high temperatures, therefore they don’t bleach and are less sensitive to changes in temperature.

Why did you choose Costa Rica for the sea turtle research you are currently undertaking?

I wanted to go somewhere I had never been and if I could do my work whilst experiencing a new country, then that would be perfect. I wanted to study a different species – in Costa Rica at Estación Las Tortugas, I am working on leatherbacks which are the largest turtle species. Whereas in Saudi, I studied greens and hawksbills.

Costa Rica is also further ahead with its conservation initiatives. I am interested to see how they operate and to witness this from an NGO perspective.

saudi arabia kirsty scott sea turtle research

“I wanted to understand how my work could be translated into real-world application and conservation management.”

What will you be doing in Costa Rica?

Every night there is a patrol where we go along the beach, find the turtles, take metric measurements on their carapace (shell) length and width and then tag them. The nests we find are then relocated due to the poaching problem. It is around $1 per egg, therefore a full nest would sell for $100, which is a lot of money here.

We relocate the nests to hatcheries which are guarded and netted to prevent crabs, foxes, and iguanas from invading. Eggs remain here for 50 – 60 days before they emerge. Essentially it is a fight between us and the poachers. For example, I have been here for three days and already they have removed our markers and poached three nests.

sea turtle conservation wa ale resort

“It is a constant battle against the poachers to save the eggs before they ‘chuso’ the nests.”

‘Chuso’ means to stab the ground with a stick – if they find an egg, it will pop, so they dig it up and sell it on the market.

 

Have you come face-to-face with poachers?

Poaching usually happens on a Saturday night as they come to the beach for the weekend. Down the line we are expected to approach the poachers, question their actions and try to convince them out of it. Ideally, we will try to keep this low-key and not escalate the situation unnecessarily.

 

What do you hope to achieve from this conservation experience?

I want to gain more field experiences with turtles through hands-on conservation work. I hope to build my confidence too – I have never worked with hatchlings, so I was eager to gain real experience with a hatchery.

 

As individuals, what do you believe are the most impactful actions we can take to conserve endangered species?

I think the key is to preserve the habitats of endangered species and find ways in which we can make them more resilient. It is a case of spreading education and awareness that habitat degradation does not need to occur to make money. I do appreciate that not everyone is conservation-minded and it is harder to implement change in underdeveloped countries where communities depend on these habitats for their survival. 

sea turtle snorkelling kirsty scott

“If we can find a way to develop sustainably, whilst preserving habitats, I think this will be the best way to help save species, and co-habit with them peacefully.”

On a smaller scale, sharing articles, signing petitions and drawing attention to the benefits of conservation and wild species, will all help make a difference.

 

Could you describe your most unforgettable underwater moment?

This has to be the time that I bumped into a whale shark whilst helping a friend with their fieldwork in Saudi. Just before we jumped into the water, we spotted a massive school of tuna swimming around the boat. Thinking nothing of this unusually large school, we leapt in and began spearfishing. Suddenly I heard my friend screaming at me underwater – there was an enormous whale shark swimming peacefully alongside the reef. I had the incredible opportunity to swim alongside this intriguing creature – a moment I will never forget!

underwater whale shark

Please could you elaborate on your role at Pelorus and what you have been working on?

I am a Marine Conservation Intern and I work closely with the Pelorus Foundation. My focus is on article creation and I have also interviewed some of our Foundation partners on marine conservation topics. My main role is to produce articles and social media content, whilst I also share some related content on LinkedIn which complements the articles I write.

My favourite articles to write are those I have less of a background knowledge on as I love researching and expanding my knowledge on new conservation topics.

sea turtle conservation kirsty scott

“It is critical to emphasise the importance of conservation around the world, and my role at Pelorus and the Pelorus Foundation has enabled my voice to be heard.”

PELORUS FOUNDATION NEWS

What are your plans for the future? Do you hope for a career in the world of conservation?

After Costa Rica I am hoping to pursue my PHD on marine conservation, ideally concentrating on sea turtles as I have only really scratched the surface. It would be fantastic to have at least three or four years under my belt as I would like to take on more in-depth projects and draw bigger conclusions. Beyond that, I don’t think staying in academia is for me, but I’d be keen to take on a conservation role, working for an NGO or for a development company that’s premise is to sustainably develop.

 

Since working for Pelorus, and through your own research, have you uncovered a destination which really attracts you?

I am now itching to explore French Polynesia. I honestly was barely aware of the country, before I wrote a piece on the overexploitation of tiger sharks and actions underway to protect this species.