Life on Mars – Turtle Hunting on Anegada

Another time with Brendan I accompanied him to Anegada, the second largest island in the BVIs; a flat coralline landmass amongst shallow turquoise water.  At that time there were no regular ferries to Anegada, and you flew the ten minutes from Beef Island airport, sometimes stopping off at Virgin Gorda en route.  The approach to Anegada was stupendous ;  because of its flatness it was barely visible from the other Virgin Islands, but once in the air the large fat sausage shaped landmass drew nearer; the large salt ponds in the centre where flamingos played and the stunning set of coral reef heads in the shallow turquoise sea were an unworldly sight.

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Loblolly Bay – Anegada – Sun, Sea and Sand

We went out with two fantastic fishermen to these coral heads, Damon and Jim.  Damon piloted the boat to the circular coral heads in the sandy shallows and we spied hawksbill turtles sparkling in the sunlight.  Once spooked they would flee into open water and by following them closely we ensured they did not have time to take breathe.

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Damon and an injured Hawksbill Turtle

Instead they had a habit of dropping to the sandy bottom to conserve energy and it was a relatively easy job to slip over the side of the boat and reach out with your hands and grab them.  It was essential to make sure you held them behind their front flippers so you could not have your fingers snapped at.  It was one of the few times I was able to open my eyes as I dived underwater and was jubilant as I brought this hawksbill turtle to the surface to be measured, the skin snipped to obtain a DNA sample and tagged.

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The one and only time I caught a hawksbill turtle

Brendan and I also walked almost two thirds of the coastline of Anegada, from the Anegada Reef Hotel on the south coast round to East End Point, the long way.  We looked for evidence of hawksbill and green turtle nesting, and in that day saw the most amazing lagoonal landscapes; shallow seas, great banks of seagrass, the odd nurse shark, waders and land birds, and all the thick scrubby vegetation types that vary over this coral land.  Anegada is a coral reef island and is often thought to be flat and boring to the occasional visitors; most head straight for the eye-aching white beaches and the magnificent coral reefs offshore, but in that day, by treading every mile, I saw the subtle changes in the land from the sandy dunes in the west, the “highlands” of the central north shore with low limestone cliffs coming down to the beach and the long rocky shoreline of the east, where pitted limestone flagstones made walking difficult.  From the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore we saw man’s litter – lightsticks used by fishermen, hundreds of trainers, nets, ropes, tyres, even part of an old hovercraft.  We met up with Shaun Kadison, a colleague from my work, and Bill Bailey, an amateur turtle expert who lived on Tortola and had spent many years carefully cataloguing the records of turtle nesting and hatching.  With him we learnt a lot about the turtle fishing, now illegal, and how a boycott of one supermarket because it sold turtle meat led to that territory-wide ban. Tensions between conserving turtles and the ancestral rights of fishermen (some of with whom I now worked in Conservation) were high and like many other projects, it showed that a purely scientific study of such a creature was nary possible.

Mobile phones did not work on the far side of Anegada at the time but Bill had a ship to shore radio that he used and he called up a bar, Neptune’s Treasure, to ask them to prepare lunch for us.  It also proved useful when we were leaving to do the final isolated stretch of the coast, we realised the easiest way would be to walk back to Neptune’s Treasure and grab a taxi back to the little airport.  We got back to Neptune’s Treasure after it had shut for the day, but the barwoman had left an ice cooler of much needed beers behind the bar, and once Bill had radioed the other side of the island for the taxi, we had a while to get them down our parched necks.

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