Ederney Gonzales of Conservacion Ambiente Colombia removes the satellite tag from Red Rockette. (Conservacion Ambiente Colombia)
Ederney Gonzales of Conservacion Ambiente Colombia removes the satellite tag from Red Rockette. (Conservacion Ambiente Colombia)

For nearly three weeks, the villagers in El Lechugal patrolled a 14-kilometre stretch of beach that rises out of the Gulf of Uraba and welcomes the handful of endangered leatherback turtles who lay their young in the sand.

This Colombian community of 400 lives primarily off what can be raised, grown or found in nature. A few years ago, the turtle eggs would have been joyfully harvested.

But those scouring the beach were not a hunting party. They were part of an international recovery mission for both the turtle dubbed Red Rockette and the scientific gold mine connected to the leatherback’s shell.

Fishermen had attached a tag to the half-tonne turtle off Halifax last June 22. Since then, the computer mouse-sized satellite transmitter recorded the turtle’s every move: how deep she dove underwater, the currents she travelled in, and the circuitous route that led her to Colombia.

A scientist with the federal Fisheries Department and the Canadian Sea Turtle Network had been carefully tracking Red Rockette’s progress, along with that of nine other turtles tagged last spring before setting out on their nesting routes.

All the other tags had gone silent en route to the tropics. But Red Rockette kept sending small packets of data to Mike James, so the Halifax biologist alerted colleagues in Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia that they might soon be expecting a visitor. He hoped they could use the tag’s co-ordinates to collect it, which would give him second-by-second information about the turtle’s behaviour and shape conservation work.

Leatherbacks have been around for about 100 million years, the Canadian Sea Turtle Network and National Geographic found, and over that time little about them has changed. The animals, however, are considered critically endangered. Estimates of their population included about 35,000 nesting females in 1995, down from more than 100,000 a decade earlier.

“We’re particularly interested in behaviour in advance of the nesting season, because that’s a segment of the mature female leatherbacks biology that we don’t know anything about,” James said. “This gives us a whole new insight into the animal’s behaviour throughout the whole trek.”

But Red Rockette’s tag went dead two days after she pulled ashore on March 28. A biologist with Conservación Ambiente Colombia had already left Bogota to see if she could find the turtle and its tag, with the help of the grassroots protection program that has sprouted in the village.

Lilian Barreto Sánchez swept the beach for three weeks, accompanied by about a dozen villagers every day. In Halifax, James had assumed the migratory leatherback had already moved on.

But on April 20, Barreto Sánchez spotted a turtle covering up a nest of freshly laid eggs. It had something on its back.

“(When) I saw the transmitter, I could not believe it!” she wrote in an email interview. “(I) turned to bend a little … to see the transmitter again (and) told with big emotion … ‘She is Red Rockette! She is Red Rockette!!’”

The team left as a tropical storm moved in, ushering the leatherback into the ocean.

The scientific recovery has also given the community something tangible, a story to help persuade those slow to shift to conservation from poaching. That change in thinking began several years ago when an elder and former poacher found the beach strewn with hawksbill turtle carcasses, said the executive director of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network.

“For the community, now they can talk about Red Rockette, because now you’ve got a personal connection with a particular turtle that’s connected to other people that think it’s important,” Kathleen Martin said. “It’s like anything, it becomes your mascot.”

The tag should soon return to Halifax, where, once it’s been stripped, it will likely be attached to another turtle.

“I can’t wait to see it, I’m always worried it’ll get lost by courier,” James said.