16 December 2009

Rodeo at the Blue Hole

Today Jessee and I went on a "turtle rodeo." That's the name the turtle researchers have given to a particular method of capturing turtles. The way it works is you drive the boat around in prime turtle habitat with as many people as possible acting as spotters. When a turtle is spotted you follow it in the boat to tire it out. Once it comes up for a breath or two it's pretty much knackered and will sit nearly motionless on the bottom. Then one person dives in head-first and grabs on. Pretty exciting! Some are better at it than others. Gilbert, a local fisherman and project assistant, can get them on the first try nearly every time. Jessee and I took 4 and 5 tries each before getting ours!

Crossing the Caicos Bank

The researchers wanted to target Green Turtles today, so we chose to go to habitat that is ideal for them. They mostly graze on seagrass and there is a great spot to find them around the Middle Caicos "Blue Hole." The Blue Hole is a collapsed underwater cave. It's on the bank side of the Middle Caicos (the shallow side opposite the open ocean), so the water is only about 4 or 5 feet deep around it. The hole itself, however, drops straight down to about 200 feet. It's a pretty famous place. In fact, according to one of the researchers, it was explored by Jacques Cousteau. Green Turtles like it there because the hole is a safe place to hide and provides easy access to the seagrass beds.

View Middle Caicos - Blue Hole in a larger map.

Immediately upon arriving at the hole we spotted our first turtle - a huge Green! We turned quickly and tried to cut it off from the hole, just a second too late. It ducked under the boat and disappeared into the deep. There was no hope of getting that one unless it came out on its own. They need to be up on the bank in the shallow water for the rodeo method to work.

Gilbert rode on the bow of the boat where he could get a better vantage. From there he was able to spot them long before we ever could. I'm not sure if it had anything to do with it, but maybe we weren't as good at catching them because we weren't dressed in the proper turtle-catching attire. He was wearing a pair of old whitie-tighties and one rubber dishwashing glove!


Of the next four turtles we spotted, he nabbed three. The only one that got away made a quick maneuver under the sun's glare and we lost its trail. The first two were young Greens, and the third was a massive adult Hawksbill.

Green #1: measuring curved carapace width.

Almost time for release.

A Monster Hawksbill - in the range of 30 years old and in egg bearing condition.

Measuring curved carapace width. It took a little weight on her back to keep her from crawling all over the boat.

Ready for release.

Whereas the Greens sat quietly and calmly while we took measurements and DNA samples, the Hawksbill was feisty. It kept flapping around, trying to crawl away, and snapping its jaws. The size of it was quite intimidating. Each time it reached out to bite I was thinking how easily it would be able to take off a finger. When we went to release her, she actually got hold of Dave's foot! Dave (the other fisherman helping us out today) yelped in pain, but luckily the turtle let go without much damage. She could have easily taken out a chunk of meat! You can hear when it happens in the video above. After the fact Dave joked that he wished he had thought to bite her back.

Bite mark on Dave's foot.

Green #2: posing for photos.

Green #2: on its back to measure plastron and tail.

Green #2: measuring curved carapace length.

Shortly after getting her on board, we spotted another small Green. This time it was my turn to try catching it. Gilbert called me up onto the bow and gave me instructions how to do it. He made sure to have Dave, who was driving the boat, follow the turtle for longer to make sure she was extra tired. When the moment was right Gilbert gave me the cue to jump on it. No luck. My hands sunk into the muddy bottom and there was no turtle. Twice, possibly three times, more I missed. On the final attempt I adjusted for refraction, slid my hand back and few inches and got hold! I brought it to the surface and quickly passed her off to the boat. You can hear me struggling to stay above water in the video.

Green #3: my catch.

Jessee was up next for our final turtle of the day. She had a little trouble getting hers too, but finally did in the end. She probably would have had it on the first or second jump, but she was trying to be gentle. We didn't want to hurt them, but the truth is they are pretty rugged (as evidenced by the ones we've seen missing flippers and chunks of shell). Jessee's actually had two pieces of shell missing from the back end. They were completely healed, but at one time must have been serious wounds.

Green #4: Jessee's catch.

Green #4: healed wound on rear of shell.

It was a great day out on the water and the best way we could have spent our last day before break. Tomorrow morning is our flight back to the States. We're headed to Florida first, then Philadelphia, Maryland, and New York. Jessee's also planning to spend a day in Boston with her sister. We're probably not going to keep up the blog while we're away, but we'll start again when we return on 2 January.

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