Photos updated 19 January 2013 (added underwater photos).
Steve Connett and Barbara Crouchley were in for a nice surprise yesterday when they received an email informing them that a sea turtle they had captured and tagged in the Bahamas showed up alive and well in Venezuela.
Sea Turtle Research
This is their retirement, to research sea turtles. They take a boat throughout Bahamian waters and capture, tag, and document turtles for the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida. In addition to supporting the mission of UF, they involve the local youth to “inspire the next generation of Bahamian citizens to meet the challenges of preserving the marine and terrestrial environments.” Since the kids were in school today, it was my turn to accompany Steve and Barbara on their speedboat and try my hand at capturing a turtle. It was one of those unexpected opportunities – you don’t get on a boat to sail around the Americas saying “I’m going to capture a sea turtle for research”. You just find yourself in the right place at the right time to participate in something like that.
Turtles of Cat Island
Our first stop was at the bonefish flats between Fernandez Bay and Old Bight, on Cat Island. Barbara stood on the bow of the boat and immediately pointed to the water twenty yards away, shouting “spot!” Steve maneuvered the boat in whichever direction Barbara would point, chasing the quick shadow under the water. Those turtles can move fast! Eventually they have to come up for air, and after short while begin to tire. In shallow water, Barbara can stand on the bow with a net and keep the boat close to the turtle. When it comes up for air, she can net it. That’s how we caught the first turtle, which already had tags.
Next moving a few miles up the coast to Smith Bay, we were near a rocky coast which quickly went into deeper water. It was time for me to jump in! But first we had to give this turtle some exercise so my slow ass could have a chance. After it came up for air twice, it started to slow down and I slipped into the water right above it – but it wasn’t ready to give up! I swam after that turtle for near thirty minutes, occasionally losing ground and grabbing onto the boat for a tow into a better position.
My quads were on fire and I was ready to call Uncle, but the turtle beat me to it. I moved into a position about eight feet above and in front of it. The turtle slowly came up for air, and it either didn’t see me or just didn’t care that I was there. It glided right into my chest and I grabbed its “armpits” and brought its head above the water. I was hoping it’d help me swim back to the boat, but it left me hanging and I had to do all the work on my own swimming back to Barbara who helped haul it onto the boat.
It was an incredible experience, swimming above this beautiful turtle, mesmerized by the colors and pattern of its shell, and being allowed to take hold of it. It didn’t have any tags or signs that it had ever been tagged. I crawled back onto the boat and let Steve capture our next, third and final turtle of the day, another turtle that didn’t have any tags.
We brought the turtles back to Fernandez Bay, where a small resort and rental cottages sit on the beach. Usually there are a few children around, looking for something fun to do while their parents are on vacation. Steve and Barbara use this opportunity to teach children about sea turtles. It’s one thing to see a turtle swimming under your kayak while you’re paddling a creek, but to see one up close gives children a greater appreciation and understanding of the creatures. They’ll forever look at them not as “just another animal”, but as tangible beings with personalities, unique migration patterns, lifestyles and markings. Today there were no children, but a bystander on the beach did help hold one turtle while Steve took its biometric data. Measurements are taken, tags are applied where there are none, and biodegradable ribbons are tied to their fins so that they know to leave those turtles alone next time they go out in search of new turtles. We then returned the turtles to the exact spots they were captured.
Adopted my Turtle!
Since the turtle I caught, weighing in at 18 kilos (40 pounds), had never been tagged before I had the honor of naming it. I say “it” because this turtle hasn’t reached the age of sexual activity and therefor its sex couldn’t be determined. I named this turtle Saoirse after my boat, and I hope the turtle turns out to be a She, otherwise all the other turtles will make fun of him for having a girl’s name.
Whenever this turtle is caught from here on out, its data will be sent to the Archie Carr center, and Steve & Barbara will email me with the turtle’s present location and size. It’s like one of those “adopt a whale” programs but having caught this turtle on my own will make it more significant to me.
Tagging these turtles and the data collected allows researchers to learn about their migration patterns, breeding habits, quality of sea turtle habitat, and even how their shell changes to blend in with their new surroundings. A turtle will always return to the beach it was born when it’s ready to reproduce. That’s pretty damn amazing when you think about how many thousands of miles these turtles travel, in surroundings that to us look the same underwater.