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.”