• Ederney Gonzales, one of the people who discovered Red Rockette

    Ederney Gonzales, one of the people who discovered Red Rockette. (Photo: Courtesy of Fundacion Conservacion Ambiente Colombia (Colombia Environmental Conservation Foundation))

Red Rockette’s journey north to Canada, then south to Colombia (Map: Canadian Sea Turtle Network and Canadian Wildlife Federation)

In the race between the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise wins through stubborn persistence. But in a race between leatherback sea turtles, the winner gets first choice of nesting locations on a remote Colombian beach, under the watchful eye of a grassroots conservation organization.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has tracked turtle migration patterns using microchips and satellite tags for some time. In fact, in the last two years they’ve even collaborated with conservation groups such as the Canadian Sea Turtle Network and the Canadian Wildlife Federation to turn their research into the “Great Canadian Turtle Race,” to see which turtle would be the first to nest.

Add to that the help of a small on-site grassroots organization called the Colombia Environment Conservation Foundation, and the Canadian efforts have become even more fruitful.

Tracking tags fire back information such as the turtle’s location, but other stored data make the tags like miniature black boxes — revealing details such as the turtles’ second-by-second movements and diving depths. But Mike James, a sea turtle biologist with the DFO who tracked the turtle race, says the tags are often dislodged; to date only five have been recovered from dozens of tagged individuals.

In 2013, a leatherback named Red Rockette clinched victory despite being one of the competitors in the Great Canadian Turtle Race to swim the farthest away. She nested on a small beach called Bobalito, near the community of El Lechugal, Colombia, around 10 months after setting out.

For the Canadian team, time was of the essence, and although poor cell reception in the area made communication difficult, they managed to get word out to the community, among them Lilian Barreto Sanchez — a Colombian researcher who dedicates her free time to turtle conservation efforts. The community of El Lechugal had recently launched a conservation program after years of hunting the turtles and were keen to help, but just before Red Rockette nested a second time, the battery in her satellite tag died out and the Canadians lost contact with their turtle after nearly 10 months of tracking.

It was a stroke of luck, then, that Red Rockette returned to the beach to nest again, which allowed Barreto Sanchez to recover the satellite tag. “It really is a one in a hundred chance,” says the DFO’s James of the retrieval. “Making that link between the feeding area and the breeding area is really great.”

And it isn’t the first time they recovered a tag with the help of local Colombians. A few years earlier, explains James, a turtle turned up in another remote beach village near La Playona, leading to a similar international collaboration.

For James, it all goes to show the importance of community connection and cooperation. “It puts a more local, substantial perspective on it.”

Click here for the Canadian Sea Turtle Network’s blog posts about the Great Canadian Turtle Race.