Swimming in the Shadow of the Eagle Ray

Island Notes 79

(All photos by Hettie)

Leo brings a hawksbill turtle to the surface.

It is that time of year again.  We begin our fourth year joining Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire in their annual turtle survey.  This entails patrolling the 25-mile leeward coast of Bonaire and the entire shoreline of Klein Bonaire, our offshore island. Five volunteers join STCB staff, Mabel and Leo.  One volunteer captains the Nancy Too, STCB’s boat.  Mabel and Leo are in the water with pony Scuba tanks for the deep diving to capture turtles.  The others are spotters and can free dive for turtles if they are seen sleeping below, an easier catch.  The group spreads out in a line parallel to the coast and moves forward together counting and/or capturing sea turtles.  The captured animals are tagged, weighed, measured and inspected for health.  All the data goes into a long-term study database which STCB later analyzes.

Green sea turtle near the bottom

After three years, I thought I had seen it all.  But on Monday, rough seas with high, breaking waves forced us to change our destination from Slagbaai in the national park to the gentler coast between Plantation Karpata and the BOPEC oil storage tanks.  Serendipity was on our side as the stretch was set aside by the national marine park in the 1980s as a no-use nature preserve—no boating, fishing, diving, snorkeling or swimming is allowed along the 2-mile pristine coast.  We are allowed special access to conduct the survey.

I had surveyed the preserve two years ago with STCB, but did not get enough of this beautiful underwater world.  The corals here are extensive and healthy, the fish abundant and varied.  It is obvious to me that reefs do better without us.  The only people that go into this protected zone are marine scientists and conservation groups like ours to occasionally conduct business.  Some locals may sneak in now and then, but human impact is low.  Actually the day we surveyed, we saw a man and woman hand-line fishing from shore, but that is a rare exception.  When we passed by an hour later, they were gone.

This area is what Hettie calls "the aquarium".

The next day of the survey took us to the extreme southern tip of the island where the Willemstoren lighthouse is located.  This was another special treat.  Normally, conditions here are so rough that it is too dangerous to enter.  Neither Hettie nor I had seen this coast due to its treacherous nature.  But yesterday the waters were calm enough for us to enter.  The swells were still big but as our group patrolled north, conditions only improved.  The sea at this end of the island is what I term “big water”, a place that gets the unprotected flow of the sea often.  I found it to be even more impressive that the reserve.  Huge sea fans of purple and green undulated in a tropical tango with the wave movements.  It was like seeing a Salvador Dali painting come alive with motion.  I spotted enormous, green-yellow shafts six to eight feet tall and about 6” in diameter, reaching for the skies.  It was an astonishing site.  I later discovered these are appropriately called pillar coral and belong to the hard, stony coral family, relatives of Elkhorn and lobed star coral.  Swimming on, I spotted two southern stingrays effortlessly cruising above the bottom.  Later I saw an  eagle ray swimming in concert with two palometas.  I was unsure what the graceful silver fish were up to.  At first they swam in the shadow of the ray.  Later it appeared that they were nibbling or cleaning the skin of the long-tailed bottom dweller.  We followed this aquatic ménage à trois for minutes while still keeping an eye out for turtles.

It was a good day on the water.  We did three, one-hour in-water sessions.  With boat time and data collection, it was an eight-hour day. Our efforts from the Willemstoren lighthouse to Red Slave netted seven turtles, mostly hawksbills.  I got to pose with the smallest hawksbill I have ever seen.  It was tiny but extremely healthy.  May he have a long, robust life swimming in the shadow of the eagle ray.


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