Turtle Rodeo

I’ll be returning to the Bahamas later this week to work with marine scientists  tracking juvenile green sea turtle habitat. Here, I recount my June, 2018 experience. Come along for this wild ride! My expedition as an eco-volunteer with Earthwatch, the global conservation organization, begins on the hot tarmac at Rock Sound airport in Eleuthera, Bahamas. The six other volunteers and I fly in on prop planes. Half of us debark from BahamasAir, the aircraft’s tail painted with tropical-colored geometric shapes that represent the country’s archipelago. The rest of our group arrives on Pineapple Air, The Sweetest Way to Fly written in lemon yellow across the plane’s body.

We drive through small settlements on the half hour bus ride to the research station. Churches on every corner, superdilly fruit trees in the yards, men playing dominoes outside shops and a salty sea breeze in the air. Dusty roads lead us to our expedition base at the Cape Eleuthera Institute and Island School, on the southernmost tip of this long, narrow island.

The campus is zero-waste, known worldwide as a model for how to live sustainably in the 21stcentury. Rain is collected in cisterns that supply all the fresh water, and solar heaters provide hot water. Three minute, ‘Navy’ showers are strongly encouraged. Wet yourself down, soap up, rinse, do not repeat.

Communal meals, composting, recycling, aquaponic greenhouses, fish farm, pigs, chickens, living roofs, and a poo poo garden are all ingredients in the recipe for living a conscious life. This is a serious wake-up call. I make a mental commitment to try bucket composting after my return home.

We settle into our sparse, same sex dormitories. I claim a lower bunk close to the door, with a sightline to the water and the possibility of a nighttime breeze. I tuck my mosquito net in the slats of the upper bunk. The simple wooden nightstand has just enough space for my headlamp, notebook, and water bottle.

After a Caribbean-style supper in the open-air dining hall, we meet for training in a small room next to the greenhouse. Our research project sets out to examine how coastal development and climate change are affecting sea turtle habitat. We use a quite un-scientific term to describe the data collection method. Turtle rodeo. Wrangling reptiles is not unlike roping a calf from the saddle of a horse. Though we catch turtles with our bare hands-no lasso necessary.

*******

My legs dangle over the side of the boat, fin tips inches above the water. I adjust my facemask and snorkel and try to keep my heart from jumping out of my chest. This feeling, an extreme sport moment. Stepping off the zip-line platform for the first time, sky diving, bungee jumping? An encounter with a creature that existed when dinosaurs walked the earth, mere moments away.

The edge of the metal boat is digging into the back of my thighs, but I’m so hyper aware of what’s about to happen that physical discomfort is of no consequence. I’m a sprint athlete, feet on the starting blocks, waiting for the pop of the gun.

The previous night’s instruction session replays in my head. Annabelle Brooks, lead scientist of our expedition, demonstrates the proper technique for catching a sea turtle, rodeo-style, on a bed pillow sized stuffed turtle named Fluffy. “Grab hold under the two front flippers. The goal is to swim until your torso is directly above the turtle. Stay with it. Wait for the turtle to come up for air. Use a tight grip. Their flippers are all muscle. You won’t hurt them.”

I wonder what they’ll feel like. Will I be strong enough to keep hold? Do they bite?

Annabelle reads my mind. “And, they won’t bite unless you stick your finger into their mouth.”

The other volunteers and I glance at one another, then back to Fluffy. We share an unspoken understanding that no classroom training is going to prepare us for a turtle rodeo. This fieldwork could only be mastered on-the-job.

Am shaken back to the present, teeth clenching on my snorkel mouthpiece.

“Look.” Jess, our research assistant and official spotter, stands erect on the bow of the boat. A clear vantage point, a crow’s nest lookout. Scuba dive booties give her the traction and balance needed for this wild ride. She spots a turtle gliding just below the surface of the calm turquoise blue water. “There, see it?” She extends her arm, palm perpendicular to the water, eyes locked, fingers aiming.

I squint at the shadow of dark brown. Looks like a moving rock.

In the stern, hand on the tiller, Annabelle maneuvers the motor boat with finesse. Weaving back and forth, mirroring the moves of the turtle.

In unison, we keep count each time the turtle comes up for air in hopes that she’ll tire. “One.”The turtle’s head barely breaks the surface and it’s back underwater. Annabelle gives the engine more gas. The boat speeds up. “Two.” Some of us just mouth the numbers. We lose sight for a moment. “Where’d she go?”

Jess points. “Swam under the boat.”

Annabelle eases off the gas. We slow down, bank to the left. “Get ready. That’s three.”

My head darts back and forth, trying to keep the turtle in sight. I tell myself to focus. Now, just below the surface, it glides with no effort, swims with an aerodynamic grace of nature. A cloud overhead casts a shadow. I don’t see the turtle.

Annabelle shouts, “Susan, on your side of the boat! Get in! Now!”

I push myself away from the boat and jump.

“Swim as fast as you caaaan…!”Annabelle’s voice becomes muffled.

The splash obscures the turtle, but I stick my face in the water and start swimming the crawl stroke, hard. She’s there. Big, beautiful and fast! The above-water frenetic energy disappears and a sort of primal awakening kicks in. This is no Aesop fable. Slow and steady will not win this race. My arms reach and pull with a freestyle crawl stroke. Fins help me to kick with strength far greater than my legs alone will allow. I vacillate between concentrating on the task at hand and staring in wonder at this creature.

I keep pace, and then I don’t. For every one turtle stroke, I must match it with many more. The turtle zigs, then zags. A gentle rise in the ocean floor. I’m in luck. If she doesn’t decide to take a 90 degree turn, the turtle’s got nowhere to go but up, and within my reach. My torso is over the turtle. She slows and follows the upward slope. I stretch, reach out, grab. Only get hold of one flipper.

My determined and competitive nature will not let me quit.I hold that one flipper tight in my right hand and pull the turtle to me. I clamp my left hand around the turtle’s flipper and latch on. Yes! I draw her to my chest. The rush of adrenaline-electric.

I lean back and let the salt water buoy me up. Arms raised, I keep the turtle’s head out of the water. The boat approaches. Everyone is cheering. “Way to go Susan!”…but voices are muted. Feel dazed. Am panting, trying to catch my breath. Someone reaches for the turtle, but I’m hesitant to let go. All I want is to sear this moment into my brain.

I hang my arms over the side of the boat, normal breathing still elusive. With strength summoned from somewhere, I heave myself up and over, flop onto the bottom of the boat, pull off my fins and tuck them under the bench seat. The others prepare to take their turn.

Jess lays the turtle on my lap, like a doctor handing a newborn baby to its mother. I am the lone protector and have no other job or task right now, but to watch over this creature. I examine the turtle’s flipper, stroke its shell (nothing like Fluffy) and stare into its eyes. This turtle, this ancient reptile resting on my thighs, will spend less than one percent of life out of the water. And, at maturity will travel hundreds, even thousands of ocean miles to return to her natal beach.

I wonder what that beach will look like? What condition will it be in 20, 30 years hence? Pristine? Only the moonlit night sky to bear witness? Or will modern high-rises and beachfront development hinder this turtle from finding a suitable place to lay her eggs, essential for the species to survive?

The engine revs up and we’re off to catch more turtles. After an hour, our group has caught three turtles. We return to the panga and lay the turtles on their backs, cushioned by orange life vests, then ‘work’ them one at a time. If they have already been tagged, we record the numbers in our data log. If not, we attach one metal tag to each of the turtle’s front flippers with a tool that is similar to a hole punch. The procedure not unlike piercing an ear.

We examine the turtle’s body for any irregularities or deformities. Holly cleans seaweed out of an old, weathered tag with a toothbrush. Annabelle and Jess weigh and measure, Lizzie clipboard in hand, documents this information. Tim lays his palm on the chest of one of the upturned turtles, keeping it calm until we’re ready to record data. I fumble with my phone, fingers sticky with salt water residue, then snap a stream of pictures and video. I kneel down, run my hand across the turtle’s carapace and stroke its flippers.

I will have the honor of releasing my turtle back to the ocean. With the confidence and strength of a seasoned rodeo wrangler, I hold high this awesome creature. Rays of sunlight ricochet off her patchwork shell, flippers set in motion even before they touch the sea.

A story of survival, millions of years in the making.

 


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