Beachkeeper’s Diary #2

Lines In The Sand

It is just before 7AM as I park my Subaru at Kite Beach.  Once again, a yellow warbler greets me as I turn off the engine, but this time the bird lands on the passenger side mirror.  It certainly looks like the same warbler I saw last week.  I reach for the button to lower the window, but the yellow beauty flies away in a heartbeat, landing in the safety of a nearby bush.  That is my cue to start looking for lines in the sand.

It is the tracks of turtles and their subsequent digging marks that I am searching for.  But the beach is full of signs of other living things.  Lizard tracks are probably the easiest to identify.  A long centerline made by the dragging tail and footprints on each side of it makes this an easy call.

Three-lined prints are also common.  I am guessing that these are made by herons or egrets that do their continual fly-bys.

My favorites though are the tracks from laughing gulls.  These looks like tiny butterflies made by the webbed feet of the gulls.

And, of course, there are people tracks, kids & adults, sometimes accompanied by dogs.  Down by Fisherman’s Hut I notice a long, deep mark starting in the soft sand and heading to the sea.  I look out into the blue.  A fishing boat bobs in the water 100 yards out.  The man has his back to the coast intently looking at his line in the water.  Occasionally he wraps the line around his hand just to keep the bait lively.  No rod and reel used here.

I am getting street-wise to many of the nuances of the beach now that I have been doing this for over a month.  Many times I can read  what has happened in the sand.  This photo on the left, for instance has subtle markings, disturbed sand in the lower left corner.  The marks were probably formed by an incoming wave crashing upon the rocks to the right.  The tide is out this morning, but hours ago at its ebb, splash from waves made these signs in the sand.

Again, I see the mystery tracks.  Other beachkeepers have reported these lately with some reporting them tongue-in-cheek as raccoon tracks.  We have no raccoons on the island, and while the shape is similar, the size is much too small.  I googled mice footprints and that is what these appear to be.

And there are other impressions that I just don’t have a clue as to what made them.  These are amoeba-shaped, about the size of a silver dollar and frequent.   Ah, the mystery continues…

But this is part of the fun of being a beachkeeper.  The process of walking this mile or so of shore gets me really in tune with the water’s edge.  The foremost mission is, of course, to find and monitor turtle nests over time.  And that is cool too.  But the beach gives back so much more.  No new turtle nests for me today.  No problem.

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Beachkeeper’s Diary #1

The Sandy Walk

The alarm buzz brings me reluctantly out of a deep sleep.  That sound is one I don’t hear much anymore unless I must catch an early plane, which is seldom now, or it is Thursday.  Ah, Thursday.  That is the day I rise early and head to the beach.

I am one of 22 people who volunteer their time as beachkeepers for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire (STCB).  Our job is to monitor turtle nesting spots on Bonaire and Klein Bonaire for 8 months of the year. Today I am out the door by 6:30am.  It is barely light.  I drive south for 20 minutes to a place called Kite Beach.  Normally, this strand is filled with kite surfers preparing their gear for a day of thrills and spills on the water.  But at 7am, I am here alone.  I strap on my Camel Pack full with ice water, cell phone, camera, keys and notebook.  With coffee thermos in hand, I begin my morning walk.

Hidden Beach

I head north for five minutes until the sand turns to rock.  No turtle would nest pass this point.  I then walk south past Fisherman’s Hut, and the dive sites Vista Blue and Sweet Dreams.  My stroll terminates at Hidden Beach, a rock-walled, small piece of fine sand.  Along the way, I look for signs of turtle nesting—flipper tracks coming from the sea, a scrape of a wide body coming ashore, crawl marks and depressions that might indicate a fresh laying of eggs.  My first time out I found a nest.  Beginner’s luck.  Our group has found four to date, all loggerhead turtle nests.  Soon the hawksbill turtles will also begin to nest on the island.

I walk the mile and a half stretch without seeing anyone.  A cruising sloop sails north along the coast, probably completing a night passage with Kralendijk in mind.  I see a baker’s dozen of flamingos flying low overhead.  Their fiery pink forms are just yards above my head.  One squawks upon seeing me.  The flock is headed to the nearby Pekelmeer Sanctuary to swill brine and shrimp all day.   A juvenile black-crowned night heron scurries before my path.  It isn’t completely street wise yet and I get incredibly close to the bird.  It will soon learn to leave distance.

These times alone are great tonic for the soul.  When not looking for nests, I let my mind wander to contemplate life, consider Maria Sharapova’s chances for winning this year’s Wimbeldon and ponder the power of camembert cheese at room temperature .  I can do this easily on the return since my nest searching is complete.  But on the way back I also pick up trash, check confirmed nests to ensure humans or other animals haven’t tampered with them and take note of dog tracks and digging.  All this goes into a database.  It allows STCB to intelligently and quantitatively inform government agencies about the environmental issues facing sea turtles on Bonaire.

A wad of fishing line, a sea turtle’s nightmare.

I am now back on Kite Beach.  The Bonaire Kite School bus has just pulled in and two blond-haired surfers are getting ready for the day.  Chairs are set out.  Beer is iced down.  The coffee is brewing.  It is time for me to go before the others arrive.  I take the peace of the beach home with me and start the rest of the day.

Water Week

Another Island Note…

Living on an island, I am usually getting wet. Whether sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, diving (free or scuba), or just plain swimming, I am in or on the water a lot.   These past seven days, however, were a bit out of the norm, tilted toward an oceanic geosyncline.  It was like being on a port tack with full spinnaker and 30-knot winds.  With out further adieu, dramatic buildup, or typical island procrastination, here is what happened.

Day One.   We start with a Sunday.  Sundays are the regular gathering of the BWDC, the Bonaire Weekend Dive Club.  Yes, we still only have a membership of two.  That has been reported on this blog before.  But the potential for growth…  Ah, the potential.  In the meantime, we deal with it.  It’s just my buddy, Nat, and I.  Remember, coconuts grow slow down in these little latitudes.

Nat & I dive down to 70 feet.  He is in front of me when I spot a large school of something swimming north 50 yards out from the reef.  The fish are deep, perhaps 120-feet.  I swim away from the reef and guestimate the school to be between 40-50 barracuda.  I’ve never seen more than three in a group before this.  I am astonished as they run silent, run deep.  Behind the large school is a behemoth loggerhead turtle, perhaps 300 pounds.  Upon seeing this, I clink on my tank to get Nat’s attention.  He swims over fast and gets a fleeting look at the turtle, but misses the school. Tardy again. We press on and see a four foot green moray here, an awesome, hawksbill turtle chomping down on some delicious algae there.  It’s been a great dive in spite of my malfunctioning buoyancy vest that threatens to take me involuntarily to the surface.

I am off duty until 4:30 when I join two new friends for a sunset sail.  Crew includes Lisette from Holland and Claire from Canada.  It is Claire’s first sail and I explain to her that the winds today are the comfortable maximum for my boat, 20 knots, but gusting to 24.  I tell her that when it blows 24 knots sailing could become, shall we say, exciting.  Little do I know that Claire in a former life raced dragsters in Ontario.  Regardless, she shrieks as the boat lists to the leeward rail during the strong gusts.  But once I explain to her how to read the water and anticipate the wind, she is totally cool.  Lisette, on the other hand, has sailed before on Kontentu. And while she has had little time on the water, she possesses a passion and enthusiasm for sailing.  All three of us have an incredible time.

Day Two.   It is Monday and Hettie and I are part of the netting crew on the island’s glorious Lac Bay.  As members of a Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire (STCB) our mission is  to trap and retrieve sea turtles in the net, get them to the boat, and then record the data (weight, length, health, etc) for a long-term study of these magnificent creatures of the Caribbean.  I have been netting for four years, but my next encounter takes me by surprise.  It is 9 am and the new week has just begun.  I’m swimming with seven others, patrolling  a 200-meter net that we just deployed.  The STCB boat, the Nancy Too, zips back and forth parallel to the net in an effort to herd the turtles inward.

Suddenly, I see a turtle struggling in the net about 15 feet down.  Sea turtles breathe air so it is imperative to get them to the surface quickly.  I do this with a struggle, as the turtle I grab is huge, the biggest I have ever grabbed.  I later find out that it tops 145 pounds, only 25 pounds less than I weigh.  But this animal has the obvious advantage.  I am in the turtle’s aquatic neighborhood.  I struggle to get it to the surface.  In the process, my fins get entangled in the net.  I, too, am in need of air, and much more than the turtle.  I thrust it to the surface and we both take an audible deep inhale.

Lisette

Before I know it, I’m back down under.  Now the net is pulling me down along with the enormous weight of the turtle.  I thrust up again for air, holding the turtle tight.  Ah, we break the surface and my lungs refill even though my mask has filled with water and a strong, determined flipper knocks off my swim cap.  But this time, I have help.  Lisette grabs the flippers allowing me to gasp some air.  Esther also swims by and releases my fins from the net.  Finally under control, I concentrate on freeing the turtle from the net.

It takes two of us what seems to be about five minutes, but the turtle is finally free of the net.  I grab its two front flippers, and with both the turtle and me on our backs, I kick to the Nancy Too.  This is usually how I transfer turtles, but this big boy has other ideas.  He begins to roll, to employ his internal gyroscope, and with all of his weight, I quickly find

Dr. Robert van Dam

myself underwater again.  I struggle to upright us together.  We do this mostly submerged dance for several rotations before finally getting to the boat.  I am barely under control on this one and tiring fast. Robert van Dam, world-renowned turtle scientist, grabs the turtle’s front flippers and urges me to push up the shell from below.  The heavyweight is finally aboard the boat.

Later, we release the Big Boy.

There is only one other turtle netted the rest of the morning, and after a quick lunch, we are back in the water.  We lay out the net again, but after 30 minutes, there are no turtles.  We relocate the net to a distant part of the lagoon.  This takes another half hour and the afternoon sun is blazing. We drop the net again, this time in murky water.  Visibility is reduced to about a foot, even though the net reaches down about twelve. It is like swimming in milk.  It looks like the Greek drink, ouzo, after adding water.  The advantage of this murkiness is that the turtles cannot see the net until they are almost into it.  The downside is that neither can we.  The crew resorts to scanning the upper foot of the net looking for the tell tail tugging of the lines.  When that is spotted, one has to pull up the net and grab the turtle.  But it can also be a trapped stingray with its venomous barb.  This is dicey work at best.  The choice pays off in spades, however.  We nab eight turtles in 14 minutes, a new STCB record.  We pull out the net quickly as we are overwhelmed with turtles.  The rest of the afternoon we collect the data on each and release then back into Lac Bay.  The spot where we nabbed the Elite 8 is christened The Milky Way.

Day Three.  Back on STCB’s boat the Nancy Too.  My first encounter is another green turtle of tremendous size—nearly 100 pounds.  I get it to the surface and fight to release the net.  In the process, the turtle bites me on the forearm.  That’s fair.  I would do the same thing if someone were grabbing me.  Plus, I have a nice souvenir of a red laceration to show for it.  Later, I nab another 20-pounder.  We get five for the morning.

Funchi

Nancy Too heads back out after lunch.  Again, I face a huge one coming in at 132 pounds. What’s up with this super-sizing?!  When I bring this big one to the boat Gielmon ‘Funchi’ Egbreghts, our Bonairan turtle expert, just starts laughing, “Patrick, I think the big ones just like you too much!”  I want to laugh but I’m puffing too much after the struggle.  We end up getting four more that afternoon.  The week of netting is off to a roaring start with 19 new turtles captured and tagged in two days.


Day Four.   It is diving again for me, this time with the Gentlemen’s Dive Club.  Started and led by Jan Brower, the group is mostly Dutch divers who gather every Wednesday morning at 9 at the Dive Inn dive shop.  We drink coffee, bullshit, and after about an hour, decide where to go.  This week we choose a dive site called Weber’s Joy.  It turns out to be a pleasant, but unspectacular dive.

Day Five.   This is my first time working for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire as a beachkeeper.  This program requires patrolling a mile and a half stretch of sand on the southwest coast of Bonaire in search of turtle nesting signs.  I arrive alone at the kite surfing beach and open my car door.  A yellow warbler flies on to the edge of the side window and sings to me not two feet away.  This is a good sign.  I travel north along the beach until the sand runs out and it turns to rock.  Then I backtrack south, walking past Kite Beach and Fisherman’s Hut.  I have been instructed to walk along the high tide line and look landward for signs in the sand.  Sure enough, I come upon tracks of a loggerhead turtle.  It looks like she tried to dig a nest but found it too rocky and then chose another spot just yards away.  There is a deep depression and then tracks back out to the sea.  Loggerheads are large, endangered sea turtles with an average adult weight of 300 pounds.  Some reach 1000.   They live about 50 years and a female can lay a clutch of approximately 125 eggs and will do that three or four times in a season.  Looking at the signs in the sand, I am fairly confident that the tracks are those of a loggerhead simply due to their enormous size.  I call STCB’s Sue Willis who heads up the Beachkeeper program.  She arrives a half hour later, and after surveying the tracks, starts digging.  Within a minute she locates the first egg.  We take a GPS reading, mark the nest site and eliminate the turtle tracks.  If all goes well, the hatchlings will appear in about 2 months for their short trek to the sea.

In the afternoon, Hettie and I pack up chairs, a cooler and shades and drive away.  It is Beach Thursday, our own personal, weekly getaway.  We visit different beaches on the island for swimming, reading, and limin’ about. Today we head to a new spot called Vista Blue.  This beach has craggy coral rock formations along the coast interrupted by fine sandy areas.  With beach chairs set up we take a swim.  We watch a half dozen 2-foot long green parrotfish cruising a mere foot from shore.  We admire diminutive least terns and hefty brown pelicans as they dive-bomb the water for dinner.  A fast forming squall sends us packing up quickly and running to the car.  We drive home in a long awaited, refreshing rain.

Day Six.  I return to the Nancy Too for the last netting of the week, and indeed the month.  The first time we launch the net, the current is so strong it begins to sweep it out to sea.  We quickly pull it out and redeploy it in another spot.  After an hour, we catch only one small green turtle.  After he is released, the group wolfs down bananas and drinks fruit juice.  We are back on the water for a third session before lunch.  To help improve the catch, Funchi points Nancy Too back to The Milky Way.  Seven of us patrol the net.  The group gets 10 green turtles in an hour.  I, however, am in the right place at the wrong time.  I never come upon a trapped turtle during the entire session.  Back on shore, we complete all the data collection releasing each turtle once its information is recorded.  By the time this is finished and we eat a late lunch, it is 3pm.  The group decides to call it a day.

Later, Hettie and I walk down to the Kanti Awa, the Waterside Bar for sunset.  It has been months since we’ve been here and it is good to see old friends.  I buy a beer for Yellow Man and Cabez, my Bonairan mates.  I chat with the Dutch gals who work with Hettie at the Animal Shelter.  I hang out with Lele and Pere, two Swedes that run a local boatyard.  I meet my diving partner, Nat, and Joey and his brother who grew up on a Brazilian plantation and now live on Bonaire.  The sun goes down.  The Polars are drained.  We head home.

Day Seven.   It is proper on this final day of Water Week that we go to a sundowner party staged by Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire in thanks to all its volunteers who worked on the netting.  It is held at Te Amo, I Love You Beach, one of my favorites.  It is a spit of pure white sand with Windex blue Caribbean water.  Everyone brings a dish.  Cacique Rum Cuba Libres are passed around.  We dine on Dutch cheese, Middle East food, and Mexican fare.  The Southern Cross rises after the sun sets and Robert van Dam points out a flash of a meteor burning up in the ionosphere.  It is time to go home for tomorrow at ten I dive with a group of people to remove fishing line from the reef, a known killer for turtles searching the bottom for food.  It has been a long, wonderfully wet week.  But I now feel like an old dog sitting on the dock of the bay.  Watchin’ the tide roll away.  It is time for sleep.