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Jumping the Turtle - monitoring Turtle growth rates at Union Creek, Inagua

A Hawksbill Turtle swims just below the surface.
Photo by Ronda Cox of Tropical Kayak Tours. 

Union Creek on the island of Inagua is nature’s research lab, seven square miles of shallow water and Mangrove swamp. The narrow creek opening is closed off from the sea by a wire fence and by wire cages full of rocks called gabions. The Turtles here are not fed, for there is plenty of natural food in the creek, but each year they are weighed. Union Creek is the only place in the world where data on ‘wild’ Sea Turtle growth can be regularly collected.

My job that day was to help the two Wildlife Wardens catch the Turtles for their annual weighing and measuring. Sammy and Jimmy Nixon were tough old characters, tanned and wrinkled Bahamians with a fantastic knowledge of the island. Both though were elderly, so they told me I would have to jump the Turtles. Lucky me!

The only way to catch these big Turtles without hurting them is to chase them in a small boat, and then jump on them. 

The author examines a Loggerhead Turtle on Inagua Island.
 The spikes coming from the ground around the turtle 
are the aerial roots of the Black Mangrove.

I found it was not at all easy. We climbed into the little aluminium open boat and set off with Sammy in his big ragged straw hat steering the boat from the stern. Jimmy stood in the bow looking for the Turtles, hand shielding his eyes from the sun and looking for all the world like an old Pirate Captain scanning the horizon for a prize.

The water beneath the boat was about six feet deep and crystal clear. The surface was so smooth you could look down and almost believe you were flying. I could see every detail of the sandy bottom, each blade of Turtle Grass and every sponge, some more than two feet across. Schools of small fish scattered to either side of the boat as we skimmed over them.

Jimmy spotted the first Turtle just a few minutes after we set out.

"Over dere Sammy," he shouted, pointing to the left.

"I see him," Sammy replied, pulling hard on the rudder. The little boat swerved, the side dipping into the water. I hung on tightly as water slopped over the side.

We followed the Turtle for almost fifteen minutes as it gradually slowed. I was ready in the bow, feet spread, and hanging on to a tattered old rope. We were now very close to the Turtle, which was swimming about two feet below the surface and moving through the water at a fast walking pace. "Jump Rod," Jimmy shouted, so without a thought for the consequences, I did just that.

I dived forwards, hands outstretched aiming for the front of the Turtle’s shell. I hit the water above the animal and grabbed for the big brown blur below. More by luck than judgement I caught hold of the Turtle on the very first try. This is where it got difficult.

As soon as the Turtle felt me holding on, it shot forward like a submarine. It dragged me through the water and dived deeper towards the sandy bottom. I knew what I had to do, put my feet on the seabed and lift the front of the shell so it couldn’t swim. The problem was we were moving through the water incredibly fast and I couldn’t get my feet anywhere near the sea bed. The poor animal had panicked and was swimming as fast as it could!

It seemed an age before I could twist my body and put my feet on the sand. I thought my lungs would burst, but there was no way I was letting go. At last I was able to flip the Turtle over, its big front flippers thrashing inches from my face. What a relief! That first breath was one of the sweetest I had ever taken. I looked up and the boat was right behind me. There was Jimmy reaching down with a loop of rope, which he deftly slipped over one of the Turtle’s flippers. He pulled and I pushed, and after several minutes of struggle - Man versus Beast, the Turtle was in the boat. A few moments later I was too. I don’t know who was the more tired, the Turtle or I?

Back on the beach we hoisted the Turtle in a rope sling tied to three long poles and weighed it. At two hundred and fifty pounds it was almost twice as heavy as I was!

We lowered it to the sand where it lay on its back looking at us with expressionless dark eyes, its scaly throat pulsing with each hoarse breath. We recorded its weight, measured the shell and made a note of its tag number.

Our job was done. We dragged the huge animal down to the water leaving a long smooth groove in the sand, turned it over, and watched it swim away.

"Come on Rod. What you waitin’ for?" Sammy and Jimmy were climbing back into the boat, ready to catch another Turtle.

I wasn’t quite so ready. The bruises from the previous encounter were already beginning to show.

It was going to be a long day!

 © R. Attrill  2000