Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Turtling, Part Two - Into the Deep

Take me to the river and drop me in the water...
Al Green

The waters of Bermuda were beautiful -- on any day -- they were as moody as a woman. There were the days that the sun beat down and held the southern wind at bay and the waters were this inexplicable transparent turquoise that revealed everything below like a see-through negligee -- you could look through the water and see the coral and the fishes and the Turtles! There were days when the water reflected the grey sky and it was like looking into a glass of skim milk. Green seas were my favorite -- they told of coming storms and they roiled with white curling waves. The colors that the waters of Bermuda could take on were infinite -- every day was different really -- you could never tire of going to the beach or driving along the South Shore Road and looking out at the water, because you were always given a gift from the sea.

Like Bermuda's waters, Turtling was never the same experience twice -- each time we went out, we anchored in a different location and we dealt with different and wind and waves. Because of that, I could never be sure what to expect when I hopped on to the Government Fisheries vessel and checked in with Jenn and Captain. I could scan the horizon and see the morning clouds burning away and only hope that they would stay away until our day was finished, but I couldn’t shy away from the voyage on the slight possibility that we might get caught in a storm!

There is something about being dropped in the water far from shore that can only be described as sheer wonderful freedom. Of course, when I, in perfect sequence with the other Turtlers, like an extra in a Esther Williams movie, would do my backwards somersault off the side of the Scout Boat, I knew I was not alone, but you felt exposed all the same. At this point, you were in the deep, and you could not see Bermuda. You could see the Fisheries vessel, but she was a distant specter of safety. All you had was the Scout Boat and your fellow Turtlers -- all bobbing up and down, treading water, finding their partners and their place to begin swimming The Net. Its amazing how far you can swim with the right equipment -- its about being buoyant! A proper fitting dry suit and a rad pair of flippers can enable a girl to tread water and swim like an otter. When I first began Turtling, I hadn’t been swimming for years, I mean years. I grew up on the Long Island Sound. I learned to swim in the Sound, if you can believe it at a summer camp they called Beach School. My husband burst out laughing at me once when I told him I went to Beach School as a child, he joked, “And what did you learn at Beach School? How to apply suntan lotion and keep sand out of your bikini?” No, I learned how to swim in the barnacle ridden shallows and I made less than interesting decoupage pieces out of cement and things I found on the beach, like shells, rocks and parts of horseshoe crabs. As a teenager, I would bicycle to the beach every day and swim out to the buoys and back again like there was nothing to it. It was just something you could do in my old hometown -- swim and swim and swim. But, when I moved to central North Carolina to stay after college, my swimming days were over -- there was the occasional night swim in a pond or the once a year trip to the Outer Banks. That was it.

So when Jenn and her cohorts suited me up and told me to swim The Net, I wasn’t sure if I could do it without drowning. But I found the waters to be delightful most days, and my muscle memory for swimming was still intact. And I amazed myself at my ability to swim The Net. I mentioned earlier that The Net was approximately 2000 feet long, a wee bit under a half mile, and us Turtlers would swim the full length of The Net several times while searching for Turtles. We swam that net until all the Turtles within its circumference were caught. So in a day of Turtling, in which we would do a morning “set” and an afternoon “set” we were required to swim several miles. This is why you had to bring an excellent lunch, you needed the calories! So we would all settle into a lovely rhythm -- teams of Turtlers would span out along The Net and swim slowly with our masked faces down in the water scanning for Turtles entangled in the almost invisible lattice. You would paddle, paddle, breathe, paddle, paddle breathe, with your arms held back at your rarely needed your arms to swim, because your big rad flippers would do all the work for you. There was one Turtler, the body-nazi diver that I paired with once, who had these webbed neoprene gloves and he would swing his arms in addition to his legs and so he swam like Aqua Man...I coveted those gloves, but at the same time, I saw no need to swim that fast, I was there to look for Turtles! As we swam, I would intermittently pick up my head and scan the surface of the water....all I could see were the tops of snorkels moving around The Net in a steady organized fashion, like horses on a carousel. Paddle, paddle, breathe, paddle, paddle, breathe - and then you would spot one, a good sized little Turtle, maybe 20 feet below you. The little fellow would be all tangled up in The Net and that’s when you or your partner would take that big huff of air into your snorkel and you would dive down and get the Turtle. Now Vanessa and I were about the same size and strength, so we would alternate as the one to dive down and get the Turtle, but if one of the partners were bigger and stronger, they were always the designated diver and Turtle retriever. The retriever would go down and as quickly as possible untangle the Turtle -- once he was untangled, you would hold him by his Turtle shoulders and swim to the surface. If your Turtle was big enough, he could actually carry you to the surface. He was pretty motivated too, because he needed to breathe, just like you! Being pulled up up up by Turtle power is about as good as life gets Mate!

While you are down there wrestling with The Net and the Turtle, who was usually quite appreciative and passive about the whole mess, your partner up at the surface would be treading water, and waving one arm in the air, while occasionally poking her mask in the water to make sure you were okay. Her one arm signal would call over the Scout boat and it would motor over to collect the Turtle. Once your Turtle was safely in the boat, you resumed swimming and scanning the net. Every once in a while, we had swimmers, such as the body-nazi, who could catch Turtles within The Net area, freestyle. This was a pretty cool move and I didn’t see it happen very often. No matter how fast you were, the Turtles were much faster.

Paddle, paddle, breathe, paddle, paddle, breathe -- sometimes we found other wonderful things caught in the net or swimming inside the net. In true Jacques Cousteau TV special style one day, a brilliant yellow sucker fish, also known as a Remora, took to following me and Vanessa. Remoras can be seen traveling with sharks, manta rays, whales and even Turtles -- they attach to their host’s belly and hitch a ride and sometimes get the added benefit of dropped morsels of food. Our yellow remora was a spectacle! He seemed to come from nowhere and it was a warm summer day, so Vanessa and I were without wet suits that day, just in our bathing suits and he kept swimming underneath us and trying to attach to our stomachs! He would try Vanessa and then he would try me! It was the most bizarre sensation to have this guy swimming underneath us! We would gently push him away but he kept swimming with us and following us. Soon the other Turtlers spotted him and the Aquarium staff, who were with us that day were amazed. He never left Vanessa and me for the other Turtlers, he had some sort of attraction to us -- at one point, one of the staff members declared that they wanted to “collect” him for display back at the Aquarium, especially since nobody had ever seen a yellow Remora, but Vanessa and I protested! We said no way to putting him in a tank! They finally saw things our way and our beautiful sun yellow Remora was left to live in the sea. He swam with us for most of the morning and finally, as suddenly as he arrived, he left to find a better host.

Once we had a motorboat full of Turtles and The Net was empty of new Turtles, we would quit for the morning. This meant that The Net was taken up bit by bit and piled into a dingy that was towed by the Scout boat and then the Turtles were transported back to the Fisheries vessel. So the Turtles got the ride and we swam! Paddle, paddle, breathe, paddle, paddle, breathe out in the open water now with the Fisheries vessel and lunch as your only goal in life. You were exhausted and the swim back to the big boat seemed to take forever, but we would all be together, a school of tired and hungry Turtlers. Back on the Fisheries vessel, we would survey our catch. Poor fellows, Green Sea Turtles, with a few Hawksbills maybe mixed in, all on their backs, glistening in the sun, slapping their flippers. This was the moment when I always felt terrible -- I used to cringe and think, “what is going through their little Turtle heads? I know, I know, they are thinking ‘this is it, I am SOUP!’” But one by one, we would weigh them, and take their measurements, and Ian or Patrick would take their blood and deposit it in a vial, which one of us would be assigned to labeling and putting away in a cooler. Then we would tag them, if they weren’t tagged already -- it was amazing how many re-captures we would get. Sometimes we would find injuries -- part of a flipper missing, a cracked carapace -- injuries sustained by a near miss with a shark or the most common mishap for Turtles, a run-in with a boat propeller. If the injury was serious enough, the Turtle would be brought back to the Aquarium for rehab. . .in addition to research and education, the Aquarium also served as a wild life rehab facility on the island -- Turtles, sea birds, even the occasional fish was brought in to hopefully recover from one of a myriad of awful things that could happen to them. Fisherman and islanders knew to bring injured wildlife to the Aquarium and I was always impressed with their willingness to do so. Unfortunately many Turtles that came in did not survive though -- many were the victims of swallowing too much plastic knew right away when they arrived from their potbellied appearance. There was no saving those guys. And those who lost flippers were usually healed up and kept in a display tank for all the visitors to see -- that tank was one of my favorite tanks to walk by every day, the misfit amputee Turtles, oh the stories they could probably tell!

Then, the “alien abduction” routine was over -- the Turtles had all been thoroughly violated in every way, what with the tagging, and the drawing of bodily fluids and the measuring and the weighing and the comments from us “look at this FAT one!” and “This one BITES!” But the best part of the day was yet to come, no, not lunch! The release of the Turtles! A few of the privileged would get to go to the stern of the vessel, descend the ladder and sit on the narrow metal grate at the base of the hull with their legs dangling in the water. The Turtles would be carefully handed down to them one by one and they would gently lower the Turtle back into the sea, and whoooosh, no sooner than that Turtle was in the water, then she would be gone, gone, gone.

Now we could eat lunch!

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