Monday, October 5, 2009

Turtling, Part One

It was of the utmost importance that you packed a good lunch for a day of Turtling. I found this out on my very first Turtling trip, which was a grey rainy February day. Only the hardiest of Turtlers went out in the winter months, the hardiest and the foolish. I was foolish - a new volunteer, eager to please Jenn and earn my Red Watch Cap and Calypso badge as it were. I would learn later, that the smart Turtlers went out on sunny days in Bermuda’s high season, May through September. Bermudians called anyone who swam outside the high season Canadian...if a Bermudian drives by the beach on a winter’s day and spots swimmers, he’ll shout out, “Look at that Mate, look at those Canadians!” I am proud to call myself a Canadian to this day as I swam year round in Bermuda.

On that first trip, I brought a pitiful lunch with me. A cold peanut butter sandwich, perhaps some soggy chips, and water. This was not nearly enough food for one who was going to swim like she was training to cross the English Channel. And it turned out Turtlers were extremely competitive -- they liked to show off what their lunch satchel contained and they really liked to eat each other’s food! It was obvious that I was a first timer -- I was issued an ill-fitting dry suit that turned out to be full of holes, so it quickly became a wet suit, I had a lousy dive mask, and my lunch was an embarrassment. They took pity on me though -- I think they even chided Jenn for hoodwinking me into Turtling on such a nasty cold February day. But I hung tough, despite my blue lips and chattering teeth -- I never let on that I was completely miserable. I was at least not as bad off as my swimming partner that day -- Turtlers travel in pairs -- and I was assigned to a barrel-chested Scottish expat policeman named Angus. He had some sort of terrible respiratory ailment which caused him to cough and wheeze into his snorkel. Occasionally as we swam, searching for turtles, he would pull up short, spit out his snorkel and expel some horrible stuff out into the sea. I was certain we would be bringing back a dead man that day.

That day, it seemed as though we swam miles and miles and only came up with a handful of turtles. The day was made even weirder by the fact that we dropped anchor in a cove overlooked by a few houses. One of the homeowners mistook us for poachers and came running out on to the rocks and into the shallow cold water. She shouted angrily at us, “I’m going to call de police if you don’t put dose turtles back in de water! Don’t you know turtling’s illega?!! Put dose turtles back!” My Scottish policeman shouted back at her, “I am the police!” and Jenn shouted “We’re researchers!” But the woman would have nothing of it. In the old days of Bermuda, Turtling was the term for turtle hunting and many a Bermudian fisherman brought home many a sea turtle to make soup with. But those days are over, despite the occasional poacher. Every once in a while I would shock someone in Bermuda by telling them that I went Turtling -- they took it to mean that I had been out killing turtles, but I would quickly smooth their roughed up feathers and tell them about the Bermuda Turtle Project. The old girl went back to her house to make the call and we all swam back to the Fisheries boat, which was anchored outside of the cove. We told Captain to radio in to the police that they were going to get a call about us. We took data on the turtles as fast as we could, tagged them, and released them. We were all cold and miserable anyway, its just nobody wanted to admit it.

Its either a testament to my foolishness or my tenacity that I went out Turtling again, but I did, I did go out again, and the second trip was the charm. It was a Bermudiful day and my dry suit stayed dry and my lunch was fabulous.

So, what is Turtling you ask? How does it all work? How does a rag tag group of researchers and volunteers go out on the waters surrounding Bermuda and find a bevy of turtles? And what in the world is the purpose? The Bermuda Turtle Project tracks the populations and movements of all turtles in Bermuda waters. The most common turtle in Bermuda is the Green Sea Turtle, and so these lovely fellows accounted for something like 90 percent of the turtles we would catch in a day of Turtling. But there were Hawksbill Turtles too, which sometimes looked exactly like the Green Turtles, until he bit your finger and then you knew he was a Hawksbill. The Greens bit too, but not like the Hawksbills!

The turtles that frequent Bermuda waters can be described as “teenage” turtles -- they were hatched on the beaches of the American coast and for some wonderful reason they all work their way out to the Gulf Stream where they grow and mature and congregate in the shallows of the Bermuda seamount. They spend their days eating sea grass and generally doing what teenage turtles do, have a really good time! At some point their biological clocks urge them to leave Bermuda and that is the mystery that the Bermuda Turtle Project is slowly solving. The turtles leave Bermuda to go into breeding waters -- some go only as far as the beaches of Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina, but some go as far as Honduras and Costa Rica! How do we know? Because researchers in those places have found Bermuda tags on turtles in those waters. These turtles can cover some serious miles!

The Bermuda Turtle Project has become a well respected and funded international research organization in recent years, but it wasn’t always that way. When I arrived in Bermuda in late 1996, Jenn’s turtle project was struggling for funding and respect. Jenn was incredibly dedicated and determined to make a place for the project in the bigger world scene -- but some things were holding her back, one was funding, two was her lack of a data base, three was the fact that she was a Bermudian woman without a scientific PhD. Jenn knew more about the turtles in Bermuda than anybody, yet the world scientific community and even the local environmentalists didn’t take her seriously. But she was a tenacious pioneer and eventually she would win over those who couldn’t see past her lack of a degree. Jenn will always be one of my environmental heros.

A typical Turtling day began at Ferry Reach, where all the volunteers and staff would meet up with Captain, who piloted the government fisheries boat for us. We would all climb aboard with our gear and our much anticipated lunches and off we would go. For the life of me I cannot tell you what Captain and his worn-out old fisheries vessel did when we weren’t Turtling. I used to imagine that Captain just lived on the less than sea worthy old boat, which resembled the African Queen, and wait for the days that we would come and ask him to take us out to sea.

It occurred to me more than once that we were in danger on that old boat -- there were days that the seas came up rough and Captain would beat it back to the shelter of Ferry Reach, with just a little more hustle than you might find in a confident old salty dog like him. Yet we only had two mishaps in the two years I rode with him and the Turtling crew. One was the day that a blow came up quite suddenly and somehow the fisheries vessel got turned by the currents and we damn near capsized...Captain roared the engines and managed to spin the bow back into the waves and we were saved. The other mishap involved Jenn. We were again, running back toward Ferry Reach to beat some bad weather and Jenn was tying up nets at the back of the boat. We hit some rough waters and Jenn just sailed overboard! We all ran sternward to see Jenn bobbing in the cold grey waters waving her arms. Then we all ran forward to the cabin and hollered to Captain - he was bearing down hard on the engines to get us out of harms way -- we told him “Go Back! Go Back! Jenn’s overboard!” Well he spun us faster than we ever thought possible and we were back to pick cold and near drowning Jenn out of the water, just like a turtle! It was days like that that made you wonder when it would be your turn! And I wasn’t nearly as seaworthy as Jenn.

But on most days, everything went very smoothly -- and there was little or no sense of danger. Our turtling destinations were determined by scouts who went out in the Aquarium motorboat the previous day. They would run around the reefs and beaches and coves and look for heavy turtle activity - which is not too difficult, because sea turtles have to come up for air, so you can spot their little heads popping up between the waves. The Aquarium motor boat would usually meet us at our destination. Captain would anchor a good distance from the turtling area, for a few reasons - one being he didn’t want to scare the turtles off with his engines and two he was kinda big to be close to our nets and all of us swimming. When he anchored, we would suit up and pair off - my favorite Turtling partner was Vanessa. Vanessa was an Italian expat -- she had long auburn hair and was covered in freckles! She wore coke bottle glasses when she wasn’t swimming. She was almost the same age as me, I was 31 and she and I swam at about the same rate. It was important to partner with someone who swam similarly to you -- and someone who had the same fitness level too. I once paired up with this really fast body-nazi diver -- I could barely keep up with him! But Vanessa and I were well matched and we had terrific fun with each other -- we could tread water for long periods and tell jokes and laugh about our weird circumstances.

Vanessa lived on a sailboat that had sunk exactly three times. Her beautiful boyfriend, who reminded me of Francois Truffaut, bought the dilapidated boat in hopes of restoring it and sailing the whole Caribbean with Vanessa by his side. But something was always going wrong for them and they seemed eternally docked up at the the old Dockyards. Vanessa managed to stay on the island by the good graces of the government because she lived on the boat with her boyfriend...and it seemed as though his work permit had run aground, so they basically lived like squatters on the island. I adored them both and envied them -- they were living out a wonderful dream, even though they were doing it with an ill-fated boat.

So while we got suited up, Jenn watched through her binoculars for turtle heads. She would radio our scouts in the motorboat who would start to drop our net. The Net was about 2000 feet long - that’s a little under half a mile. The net would be dropped in a big circle, with the hopes that as many turtles as possible were inside the net. Once the net was dropped, the motorboat would come out to the Fisheries boat and pick us all up. We would all awkwardly climb down from the big boat, with our wet suits and our masks and snorkels and flippers an off we would go to the netted area.

It was then that we would do the coolest thing - it was the kind of thing that you saw on all those Cousteau tv specials -- we would all sit on the sides of the motorboat and then, vooop! One by one, we would flip over backwards into the water - we had to enter the water this way, or else we would capsize the motorboat. It took me a few tries to get this backwards somersault off the side of the boat right, I think I cut my lip on the side of the boat the first time I did it, but once I got the hang of it, I was unstoppable. I mean, learning that alone, earned me the Red Watch Cap!

Next...catching us some Turtles!

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