Funchi Bids Áyo

Island Notes 75

In wrapping up 2010, I present to you the following excerpt from an article I wrote about my very good friend, Funchi.  It was published this December in The Bonaire Reporter…

Back in 2003, I was visiting Bonaire for the first time as a tourist.  I was enjoying the day at Donkey Beach when I noticed a tall, inquisitive man searching the sand.  As he approached, he asked,  “Have you seen any turtle tracks today?”   Thus, began my friendship with Funchi Egbreghts.  Not only did he instruct me in the fine art of finding turtle nests that day, but he also peaked my interest in sea turtle conservation.  When I moved to Bonaire several years later, I became a STCB volunteer and have since spent many days on the water with Funchi.  It is the place where he feels most at home.

“What we have here is a gift—the reef, the sea,” explains Funchi.  “I think it is amazing.  I’ve spent my whole life with it.  It is very important for the Bonaireans and the conservationists to make this a priority to save it.  It is not as healthy as years ago.”

Funchi should know.  He has a historical perspective that few possess having spent years as a fisherman bringing in fish and diving for lobster.  He was known to even catch an occasional turtle now and then.  But when STCB came calling in 2002, he decided to change careers.

“The transition from fisherman to conservationist was not hard.  I have always loved animals.  Other fishermen started seeing me like the police in their eyes, but we kept it at a joking level.  It was important for STCB to have that connection to the fishermen.  Since those early days, things have changed.  Now fisherman bring me injured turtles so I can bring them back to health.”

Besides helping injured turtles, Funchi has been central to STCB’s annual, in-water surveys.  Twice a year, turtle counts are conducted.  A number of turtles are also captured and then ID tagged, weighed, measured and released back to the sea.  The data collected is critical for understanding turtle populations over time and making responsible environmental decisions.  But it is also arduous work.  The entire coastline of Klein Bonaire and the leeward coast of Bonaire is surveyed.  This involves swimming miles along those long stretches of reef and sand, looking for turtles.   Additionally, turtles are netted in Lac Bay where, after the data is collected, the animals are returned to the bay.  During the in-water surveys, Funchi and others dive to capture turtles and sometimes that can be risky.

“The most dangerous part of the job was diving with a pony tank to great depths of 100 to 120 feet,” explains Funchi.  “One time, outside the reef at Lac, I dove down for a hawksbill turtle at about 120 feet and started to bring it up.  My air ran out at 90 feet, so I let the turtle go.  I blew air out from my lungs the rest of the way up.  It was a very long way to the surface.  Also, during netting, it is easy to get tangled in the net when trying to bring a turtle to the boat. There are always risks, but you just got to live your life.”

Funchi has lived his life to the fullest while working for STCB.  The organization sent him to a symposium where he met with others from around the world doing sea turtle conservation.  He visited other islands such as Puerto Rico’s Mona Island and the Aves and Los Roques archipelagos of Venezuela.  “The turtle world is big out there.”  Funchi also tagged 1500 turtles and counted nearly 25,000 turtle eggs during his time with STCB. “That’s a lot of counting!”

Even with all that experience, this turtle expert could still be surprised. “The biggest turtle I ever encountered was a male loggerhead.  It probably weighed 400 pounds and was nearly five feet long,” says Funchi.  “He used to hang out on the east coast near Spelonk.  I never named him because every time I saw him, he scared the hell out of me.  I would never have remembered his name.  These turtles are harmless to humans, but loggerheads are very curious and this guy was huge.   He would always come very close and surprise me”

Funchi’s favorite time, however, were those days he spent on Klein Bonaire looking for turtle nests.  This is Bonaire’s prime nesting area, which Funchi simply refers to as ‘my island’. “Walking on the beach on Klein Bonaire was the best part of my job.  To go look for a turtle nest is like going to look for a treasure.  Even though you know you are going to find a track, you don’t know where the eggs are. That’s very interesting to discover.”

Joining him for many of the nest counts was STCB volunteer and visiting yachtsman, “Red” Berger.  For nearly three years, three times per week, she and Funchi walked the shores of Klein Bonaire looking for signs of sea turtle nests. “Every time I was out with Funchi, it was like a nature lesson,” says Red.  “He shared all his knowledge from the tiniest crab to the biggest bird.  He taught me oceans of information.  And the kids loved him too.  When he showed them Klein, they would follow him down the beach like a pied piper.  They hung on his every word.”

Klein Bonaire was also the stage for a visit from Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands several years ago.  When she arrived by boat, a short ramp was set out so that the Queen would not get wet going to the beach.  Funchi had built the ramp for the occasion.  “That part of the visit didn’t go too well,” remembers Funchi.  “The bridge sort of broke when she was halfway down.  Luckily, a marine was there to grab her.  Plus, she wore flip-flops so she was prepared to get a little wet.  That was very clever of her.”

The plan was to have Queen Beatrix tag a turtle as part of the ceremony, but she hesitated because she thought it might hurt the animal.  Funchi explained to her that it was no more painful then someone getting ones ear pierced.  He then saved the day by offering to do the actual tagging while the Queen held his hand as he operated the tagging pliers.  The newly tagged sea turtle was then named after one of the Queen’s grandchildren.  This event turned out to be the highlight of Queen Beatrix’s visit.  “Somebody can win thousands of dollars in a lottery, but never meet the Queen,” laughs Funchi.  “That was a special experience.  Plus, the Queen held my hand!”

Another event worth noting was the day Funchi had a guest, a potential funder, aboard the STCB boat, the Nancy Too during a turtle survey.  “We found a huge loggerhead just sleeping on the reef.  I went down to 30-feet three times to pull him up with no success.  I had to get a second tank since I had run out of air.  Finally, we got him to the boat. He was big, about 300 pounds.  The loggerhead bit the boat on the way in. My guest was so afraid of the turtle that he perched on the far point of the boat’s bow, shaking. But he still wrote the check!”

I will miss those times on the water with Funchi aboard the Nancy Too.  His bad jokes, infectious laugh and good spirit were always a lot of fun. Funchi now plans to spend more time on land, developing his animal farm kunuku for the children of Bonaire to enjoy.  But he still is concerned for the island’s natural world.

“I hope that conservation foundations include locals in their decisions in the future.  Bonaireans have a lot of important, local knowledge.  They need to be included and not take advantage of.  It has to be a fair exchange.  It can’t be a one-way street.”

Looking back on his eight years with Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, Funchi has mixed emotions. “I will miss the rhythm, being part of something, going to Klein, walking the beach.  I will miss those things.  But I am very proud of what I did.  I have no regrets.”














The G.B. Express

Island Notes 74

The final episode of the Anguillan Trilogy

I had not figured the whole thing through.  All I knew is that a day of R&R was needed after three full days of work on Sint Maarten, and the next day I had a 6pm flight to catch home from Princess Juliana Airport to Bonaire’s flamingo pink terminal.

So when I arrive at the ferry dock to make arrangements to get from Anguilla to Sint Maarten, I am pleasantly surprised.  For 35 bucks I can take a one-way boat trip that includes a shuttle to the airport.  Sold.

I arrive early at the docks before my 3:15 departure.  Docks are always interesting places to hang out on small islands.  The Anguillan taxi drivers surround a vertical chalk board in front of the GB Express ticket office.  There is a constant shuffle of numbers being marked in chalk.  Each cipher represents a cab.  It is their ‘old school’ way to distribute rides evenly to the drivers.  Well done.

My ticket agent, Lydon Connor shows up as promised.  Earlier that day, I had paid him for the ticket, but he didn’t have the proper receipt for cash.  “I’ll remember you when you come back,” he said.  I trusted him, but what if he couldn’t show for some reason and someone else showed up at 3:15?  Lydon improvised and wrote me a cash receipt on a VISA credit card paper.

I passed through customs and boarded the GB Express with four other men, all from the islands.  This is a small boat, perhaps 25-feet long with a maximum capacity of twelve.

Departing Blowing Point Anguilla on the G.B. Express

“That’s only the legal passenger limit,” says Lydon smiling.  “We can fit more. Sometimes we even transport animals—people’s dogs and cats.”

Lydon’s older brother, Capt. Lyle Connor welcomes everyone aboard, fires up the two, 225 HP Yamahas and we leave the dock.  “Hang on,” warns Capt. Lyle.  “We have some seas today.”

Capt. Lyle with Brother Lydon

I am impressed how the GB Express handled the waves.  It is smooth cruising with little roll.  I ask Lydon about the boat. “It’s a fiberglass hull with wood uppers covered with fiberglass.  We even made the seat coverings.”

Capt. Lyle tells me later that the GB Express is a Rebel Marine boat.  I have heard about these craft on Sint Maarten.  Built on Anguilla, they are stout, sea worthy, and reliable.  The GB Express lives up to the reputation.  Anguilla has always been known for boatbuilding.  Back in the day, they crafted fine wooden sailboats that were used for fishing and transportation.  It is good to see that Rebel is continuing that tradition of fine boat building.

Passing a sailing cruise ship on the way to St. Martin

Entering Simpson Bay near Marigot

The trip goes smooth and soon we are entering the French entrance to Simpson Bay, the largest lagoon on the island and a major center for visiting yachts in this northeast corner of the Caribbean.  Once through the bridge, the waters calm down appreciably and I go forward to talk to Captain Lyle.  I compliment him on his boat and ask him if the conditions today were typical.  “That’s about average for this time of year.  Soon we will be getting the Christmas winds and it will be a bit rougher.”

“Yeah, I know how those are,” I reply.  “I sailed them down in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines during a December years ago.  That can be big water.  What has been your worst day on the water with the GB Express?”

“We left Simpson Bay at 1am with two other boats taking 90 people total,” explained Capt. Lyle.  “The swells in Simpson Bay were 4-5 feet high.  Out in the sea, they were 15-feet!  We couldn’t see each other.  The bow looked like it was smokin’ from all the white water foamin’ over.  We lost some baggage coming over on that one.”

Mega yacths on the Dutch Side

We arrive on the other shore of the lagoon in minutes.  Now on the Dutch side, we depart the boat to go through customs and on to the airport shuttle.  I bid farewell to Capt. Lyle and stop to talk to my newfound friend, Lydon Connor.

“By the way, Lydon. What does the “G.B.” in GB Express stand for?

“God’s Blessing.”

Unbeknownst to me, divine intervention delivered this heathen safely to Sint Maartin shores.  I give a high five to Rebel Marine and Capt. Lyle.

The Defeat of the Dolphin Mexican Kingpins

Island Notes 73

Part Two of the Anguillan Trilogy

I had just completed three grueling days of journalistic pursuit on Sint Maarten.  I was working much too hard for my new career as World Kid and decided to take a break at the end of the assignment.  I hopped a ferry out of the French West Indies port of Marigot, St. Martin, and twenty-five dollars later ended up at Blowing Point, Anguilla.

“Need a taxi, sir?” yelled out a young woman driver.

“No, darling.  I’m walking today.”

I knew my destination was just west of the port and headed up the road.  I stopped at a split in the route that had me guessing which way I needed to walk.  I didn’t want to make the wrong choice.  I had one bag of clothes on one shoulder and a heavy daypack of gear on the other—camera, lenses, audio recorder, laptop.  I asked an old man nearby where the Ferryboat Inn was.  He motioned me to follow him through a parking lot that led onto one of the lanes I was pondering.

“You see that sign way down there on the left?  That’s Patsy’s.  If you walk past that, you will see another sign just like that except it’s called the Ferryboat Inn.  That’s where you want to go.”

Five minutes later, I arrived and settled in.  The inn is located on a lovely sand beach with a grand view of St. Martin to the south.  I was curious about the pier that jutted out from the coast.  It was unlike any I have ever seen.  The decking formed a square far out in the sea, and the bottom was netted.  I had absolutely no clue why this dock was shaped this way.  But with the sun setting and a Mount Gay in hand, I decided to give this mystery a rest.  My trip to Sint Maarten that had ended earlier that day had been a handful.

The next morning I ran into the same old man at Blowing Point and asked him about the strange pier.  “Oh that’s where the Mexicans were going to put the dolphins.  It was going to be Anguilla’s next big tourist attraction.”

It turns out that this Mexican development company had already set up profitable,  swim-with-the-dolphins operations in the Caymans, the Virgin Islands and Guatemala.  They wanted to establish one here on Anguilla.  Before people on the island knew it, the pier was being constructed right in their backyard.

“A number of folks got together to stop it, “ continued the old man.  “We had nature groups, the archeological society, all kinds of people against it.  They finally had no choice but to get some lawyers and take the Mexicans to court to stop the construction.  The lawyers told us we had a case, but when it was presented to the judge, she said it would take her two weeks to review the case.  I was shocked.  I thought the lawyers had presented everything clearly and expected a verdict that afternoon.”

The verdict never came in the promised two weeks.  It didn’t come until this past September, one and a half years after the case was presented to the judge.  She did not rule as the locals wanted, a verdict saying that the location was unsuitable for this folly.  Rather, the judge ruled that the Mexicans would have to reapply for project consideration and a proper environmental assessment would need to be conducted.

“The Mexicans left the island long ago,” added the old man. “They now have three months to comply with the judge’s request.  I doubt if they will return.  If they don’t come back, the judge will force the local government to remove the dolphin trap.  The politicians were the ones that approved this fiasco in the first place.  If they don’t remove it, the next hurricane sure will.”   The old man just smiled as he looked out at the abandoned construction.  He knew its fate and who had won.

“Imagine, someone coming here from Mexico and telling us that we don’t have a chance to stop what they are going to do.  What arrogance.  Well, there won’t be any dolphins in detention in our back yard.”

Anguillan pride.   It is nice to know that the ‘good guys’ do win at times.  More power to them and the dolphins.

On De Go

Island Notes 72

Part One of the Anguillan Trilogy

I rise early with the Anguillan sun. I feel like walking to see a bit more of the island on my short stay.  I could rent a car, but this island is cursed with the nasty British habit of driving on the wrong side of the road.  I have terrorized people on several continents and a couple of islands when put into that misguided habit of motoring.  It is not only that the roads are backwards.  The cars and their instruments are too.  So when you flip the turn signal, the windshield gets sprayed.  Take a right turn and you must cross over a lane of on-coming traffic. Go to grab the stick shift and your hand smacks into the side panel of the door.  Needless to say, I had no compulsion to terrorize the friendly populous of Anguilla on this fine, sunny morning.

Rather, I laced up the hiking shoes, grabbed a tourist map.  No, I wouldn’t be heading to The Valley or Sandy Ground today. They were a bit too distant.  Instead, I chose South Hill as my destination where Geraud’s Restaurant promised walnut pancakes with raspberry sauce.  Time to walk for the carbs.  I stopped to talk to two guys in downtown Blowing Point to get some roadside landmark clues for critical turns that I would need to make.  My tourist map was sketchy at best.  I told them my destination.

“You walkin’?  To South Hill? Oh no.  That is much to far, sir.  It is at least 4-5 miles.”

I assured them that not only I had the time, but also I was fit enough for the trek, despite the appearance of my white mustache.

“Well, if you do go up the Blowing Point Road, you need to take a left at the partially constructed house,” instructed the first man.  “That will get you on to Spring Path Road.  My dad is building that house.”

“That’s wrong!” countered the second man.  “You have to turn left at the broken tree.  It is just pass Miss Lizzy’s house.”

While the controversy raged on over where I needed to turn, I said thanks and slipped away.  Fifty yards down the road, I looked back.  The discussion was only getting more heated.

Soon, I saw an elderly woman approaching on the other opposite side of the road.  She wore a purple bandana around her head and moved her long arms and legs with the grace of a slow-motion gazelle.  She looked at me and said, “You got no walk.”  A moment passed.  I was unsure what to say.  She just shook her head and repeated again, “You got no walk.” And moved on.

Was this a social commentary?  Was there some kind of obscure cultural message in this four-word proclamation?  I was confused.  Perhaps I was not walking with the necessary rhythm to get me down the road.  Maybe I needed more spring in my step, more motion in the locomotion, more sizzle on the steak, more noodle in my strudel.  There I go.  Much better now.  I am doin’ the walk.

I soon pass a house where the second floor is open to the elements, half completed construction.  A nearly naked man is laying in a decrepit plastic beach lounge chair that has seen better days.  He is staring at the sky, listening to a radio that is set at full blast.  The deep, staccato voice speaks in evangelical rhythm, but I am unsure if it comes from a man of the cloth.  Perhaps he is the aspiring politician I see plastered on the nearby telephone poll.  The voice sounds more like a local radio personality with a cult-like presence.  Certainly, nearly naked man is absorbed.  He doesn’t even notice me walking by.  I finally can make out the broadcaster’s words, Beware of the social decay we are now witnessing, brought on by the compu-tah. People, you need to listen to the child that exists in all of us.  That is still inside you!

This guy is preaching to the choir.  Perhaps nearly naked man needs to hear this, but I sure don’t.  I have been practicing growing older but not up for decades.  If anything, I need to pay more attention to my adult ying rather than my childlike yang.  Or is it the other way around?  Ying, yang.  Yang, ying.  This mental  debate gives me a rhythm to the walk.

Another person is approaching down the road.  At least this man is fully clothed.  He takes one look at me and yells smiling, “You be on de go!  Good Mornin’!”

Whew!  My newly revised walking strut has passed the Anguillan test. I now be steppin’ out.

The Spring Path Road takes a sudden bend and I begin my ascent of South Hill.  Both ‘ascent’ and ‘Hill” are a real stretch of Webster’s meanings.  Anguilla is a very flat island and the road ahead is a slight grade at best.  But time is passing and Geraud’s pancakes are calling.  As Buddha or one of his cronies once said, “It is the journey, not the destination.”  I am good with that this fine morning.  I be on de go.