14 September 2009

Iguana Rescue Team

It's hard to believe, but we've now come to the end of our first week with the Fall semester students. They seem like a great group, and have been really enthusiastic about the program, the classes, the community, and the activities so far. After our site cleanup on Saturday, we introduced the students to some of the potential community engagement (formerly known as community outreach) projects for the quarter. Many of them are the same as they were over the summer sessions, but we're also adding in opportunities to get involved with the schools and with various other community groups, as these SFS students will be here for three months and have time to make more established connections with locals. Then, the students headed out for a snorkeling ID session, where they got to practice identifying various species of algae, sea grass, and mangroves before their first Ecology exam this coming week. For dinner last night we had a cookout on the beach by East Bay, and then talked around the campfire about everyone's first impressions of the island. (The students were prepared with lots of thoughtful comments to contribute, as they had just handed in their first "cultural reflection" papers.)

On Sunday, our day off, Brett and I went for a dive in the morning and then drove out to Coast Guard after brunch for a snorkeling trip with three of the other staff members. We parked the van at the tip of the South Caicos handle (known as "Coast Guard," after the abandoned USCG station there) and then swam to Plandon Cay just north of us. When we arrived there we decided to swap out our fins for our walking shoes, and explore the little island a bit. We didn't get very far, however, before stumbling upon a lobster trap that had washed up on shore. That part is fairly unremarkable, as lobster traps are very common near us, but the surprise was that there were six iguanas trapped inside! We spotted them from a distance, but it wasn't until we got up close that we noticed the remains of several more iguana carcasses inside the cage as well. They must have been trapped in there for a long time. In fact, it appeared that the iguanas who didn't make it had been eaten by the ones who did, made evident by the fact that all that remained of the dead were their heads and traces of their bones, skin, and scales.

Iguanas are native to many of the islands in this area, but since the introduction of cats and dogs they've been mostly wiped out. They only remain on some of the smaller cays, so the loss of the ones who died in the lobster cage was heartbreaking. We were determined to free the ones that were still alive! We had basically nothing with us and certainly no tools, so we tried bending the wire with our hands, prying the bars with rocks and conch shells, and coaxing them out with sticks. None of it worked. We were reluctant to put our hands in there because iguana bites are said to be pretty nasty, and often get infected. When we initially approached the cage, the iguanas were frantically jumping around and slamming into the sides, as you might expect a panicked animal to do, but once we went to work trying to get them out they calmed down. It makes for a better story that they could sense us trying to help and were therefore calmed by our presence, but it's more likely that they were just worn out and nearly starved. Either way, their quieted demeanor gave us the opportunity to try another tactic. Marta, an experienced shark researcher, found a piece of rope that had washed up on the beach and tied it into a type of lasso that she has used on many occasions to restrain sharks. We put the lasso through the entrance of the trap, slung it around the neck of the nearest iguana, and used it to pull him, or her, to safety. (They could have physically crawled out on their own, but lacked the problem-solving capacity to find the correct route.) It worked! Now we had the iguana outside the cage, panicking again, but this time on a leash. It was a pretty funny scene to be walking a wild iguana down the beach. It then took three of us to get the lasso off: two to restrain it and one to remove the rope. One of the iguanas began running in circles before we could hold it down, and then struggled so badly it nearly bit a couple of us and almost got stepped on as our feet got tangled in the rope. In the end, they were all freed and we escaped without a single bite and with only a couple minor scratches.

It felt really good to save those 6 iguanas, but it's really sad to think how often this must happen. These traps get lost all the time. It might not be that common that they wash all the way up on shore and trap iguanas, but countless fish and crustaceans must die in the ones lost at sea (recall our last rescue episode where we freed a young Nurse Shark from a lost trap at Dove Cay). In the end, Brett made sure that no more would die in this one by crushing it completely flat and closing off the entrance.

Later on we returned to the center with our heroic tales of iguana rescue. About the whole endeavor, Will commented dryly, "they're not too bright, are they? If I saw a trap full of dead humans, I'm not sure I'd go in." Which was made all the more humorous by impressions of finding and entering an imaginary cage full of human remains: "Hmm, what's this? Oh, it appears somebody's died in there. Well, I'll just climb inside and see if it might make a good snack..."*

*Thanks to Brett for co-writing this entry with me, as I got distracted by work duties halfway through and might not have gotten around to publishing it for several more days without his help. Also, sorry we don't have photos! We made a last minute decision to leave the camera at home because we'd be swimming against a very strong current for part of the time, and then seriously regretted it! (Although, we may not have made it through the current if we'd been carrying more stuff on our backs. It was quite a workout!)

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