The Adopted Dog – A day trip to Bequia

Eduardo and I met up with two staff from the Ministry of Planning; Tony Bowman who was the overall project coordinator, and Dornet Hull who was a chief technician, at the ferry dock at the eastern end of the waterfront.  We chugged over on the hourly ferry to Admiralty Bay, chatting about various aspects of the project and life in general.  These field trips are often useful to build the personal relationships with your clients; and this project had struggled for a long time to get through to this stage.  When you are being formal over the phone or by email, it is difficult to understand the context of the people you are meeting, and of course you do not get the visual clues to client’s moods or concerns.  A day in the field away from all the formality of office bric-a-brac helps break down any barriers and explore around the work.

With islanders though, they are often distracted.  Everyone knows everyone else and there was at least three other people that Tony had to talk to while we made the short crossing, which cut up our time to focus together.

On arrival at the small jetty in Admiralty Bay, we were met by a driver from the Ministry of Planning based in a sub-office on Bequia itself.  We were driven all over the island that day, mostly places I had seen on my previous visits, but again with different people and with a different purpose, you saw new perspectives.  We drove into Friendship Bay, the largest settlement on the south coast of the island.  In the two years since I had last been there, I could see how new housing was both infilling in the bay area, and reaching higher into the hills at the back.  Zigzag roads up to each property were cutting into the rock, backhoes were sitting around on roadsides all over town.  We walked over one slope which has been subdivided and now earmarked for development.  The initial clearance of the dry shrub had occurred, but so far this was the extent of any work; indeed the dormant time which is so common in any Caribbean development – whether it be big government projects or small residential builds, had allowed the natural vegetation, or at least the weeds, to cover the ground once more.

We drove up the eastern side of the island, dropping in on Brother King’s turtle hatchery that I had visited a few years previously.  This side of the island at least still looked the same, although Tony pointed out several locations where people had plans, in particular government wanting to subdivided some old palm plantations.

We looked up at the north end of the island above Admiralty Bay.  Here on an exposed ridge were more plans to subdivide.  At the top of a small pinnacle along the ridge was a metal pole with what looked like an oil barrel on it.  I correctly assumed it was a trig point, but boy what a survey mark.  Trig points in many countries are small concrete pyramids that surveyors point their theodolites and rangers at to get a fix on their locations.  This was a big fix – indeed it was an oil drum, turned upside down, cemented on the end of the metal pole and painted white and red.  It was large enough that it could be seen in St Vincent 15 kilometres to the north.  The trig points are meant to be accurate to the centimetre, but I wondered what the accuracy of these posts were; the target was enormous and the pole was at about a ten degree angle from the vertical.  Tony, with his usual phlegmatic “this is how it is in the Caribbean” said that the trig point network in St Vincent was old and not maintained well.  Another problem for us pulling together accurate mapping of the islands.

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Capturing the Diversity – a fatal emergence

I was drawn back to Long Beach morning after morning.  I’d arrive soon after sunrise to see the last straggling females making their way back down the beach.  It reminded me of the descriptions of the sea tanks in John Wyndham’s “The Kraken Wakes”.  They are either unperturbed by people taking photographs of them in the morning, or at least resigned to the fact they can do little about it.  In the daylight you see just how long and lumbering their walk is.  In the time it took me to walk from end to end of Long Beach and back, a turtle may just about make it from their nest to the sea.   If they are lucky they get a helping slide down where the waves have eaten into the beach.   Once in the water, though, and buoyant, they seem to give the land a final wave with a flipper and then skedaddle quickly into the deeps.

A colleague from St Helena, Nikki,  arrived on a flight from the UK while I was there and she joined me on one of these morning walks.  As well as a few adult females making their way back to the sea, we almost stumbled on a nest where hatchlings were poking out of the sand.  In the centre of the nest pit, a cluster of little black turtle heads were poking up.  We cleared the sand away and they started to vigorously flap their slippers and release themselves from the sand.  Some escaped and started to head off in different directions.  By brushing a little sand away we seemed to have started a whole mechanism going below the sand and now the area was erupting with 20-30 little turtles.

Neither of us were turtle experts so we just stood back and watched for a while.  Most of the babies were heading seaward but a few were rambling aimlessly up and down the nests.  Like little clockwork automaton, the legs kept on moving whatever they came across and often they tripped up on themselves and fell back down into the nest, or seemed to go round in circles when they reached an obstacle.  Nikki tried to help some of them reach the sea, but that was probably the worst thing to do. Waiting in the shallows were a shoal of the piranha like blackfish. Almost before a baby had learnt how to swim the shoal were on it, grabbing a leg each and the head and pulling the poor creature apart.  Frigate birds were also patrolling up and down the beach, and the crabs were not far behind.  Daytime is the worst time for a newly born turtle to try and make that treacherous journey.  At night you are still prone to a series of ravenous predators but at least you stand a faint chance. In the full daylight you were doomed.  I don’t think one of those turtles made it that day.

We were feeling rather hopeless as more turtles were still emerging from the nest, when I spied Jacqui Ellick and her dog.  Jacqui is the queen of turtle monitoring on Ascension Island; she has patrolled beaches for nigh on twenty years.  Her husband, Ray, is a senior manager for Cable and Wireless and Jacqui initially took up turtle counting as a hobby.  Over the years, mainly down to the continuity of her service, she has provided reams of very important data that help scientists like Brendan and Annette monitor the success of green turtles.

We asked her advice on our emerging hatchlings.  She had a kind of modesty that suggested she knew nothing, but you didn’t stay a layman after so much time on one subject.  She shrugged her shoulders and said ” I dunno, I suppose you might just cover them up with sand.”  We piled sand over the black bodies and they immediately went still.  Lesson learnt and more respect to Jacqui for her knowledge.  There are obvious trigger mechanisms in a nest which make the hatchlings move.  And if there is sand covering the top ones they stop moving.  The lack of motion means the pile of turtles underneath also stay inactive.  But if the top ones are exposed then they start moving and the action sends shockwaves right through the nest and they erupt.

On my final morning on Ascension Island, I arranged to join Jacqui on the next count on Long Beach.  Tasha came along too and we had a fantastic walk and logged some useful data.  I’d been working with Jacqui since the start making a simple database to log her counts and we’d refined it over the years, but this was the first chance in seven years that I had seen how she collected her data for real.

Capturing the Diversity- combing the beaches

Counting the turtle tracks is the easy part.  The difficult part is the work needed to be done on the beach to ensure the count is accurate.  Although tracks soften quickly as the wind blows the sand around,  you need to get an accurate count each day (or maybe each week depending on the frequency of turtle nesting events) so you have to wipe the slate clean before you start the counting again.  So the same day that the count is complete, the Conservation Team and any willing volunteers head out to rake the beach.  The first time I got roped into doing this I had not intended to be involved.  I had gone for  a late afternoon walk up to Fort Bedford, but I spotted a sizeable team of rakers out on Long Beach.  I watched them for a while trawl perpendicular to the sea, up and down, up and down, and started to feel guilty, so I dropped straight down through the thorn trees and went across to greet them.  They were only half way along and some were tiring so were pleased to see some fresh legs.

The aim was not to smooth the beach down like the machines which manicure the front of every resort hotel in the Caribbean or Med.  By raking roughly across the whole beach you are breaking the existing turtle tracks up.  By the archaeological principle of superposition, if you see a turtle track over the rake marks, you know there has been a turtle there since you raked. By this method you can distinguish the old from the new and increase the accuracy of your count.

But even so, it is back breaking work, and blister making too.  I helped out on Pan Am Beach one morning.  I was keen to go as for all the years of travel there, I had never made it down on to this beach.  It was a popular weekend spot, partly as it was just below the American base, and the name Pan Am stemmed partly from it being at the end of the runway.  I went with Natasha and Jolene.  Natasha was one of the few staff at Conservation that had worked alongside me since I first visited Ascension Island; if you wanted to know where anything was  or how to do something, she was probably storing it at the back of her mind somewhere.  When others were not strict at recording data in the databases she would be there to get them sorted.  Jolene had been around Conservation for several years too but my trips always had coincided with when she was at school or on holiday.

We dropped down the cliff edge on a rough cinder track and parked up at the beach hut at the far end.  For this trip we did the counting first, then worked on the raking.  As Pan Am was not so intensively used we got away with a simpler method, raking the front of the beach only, and then messing up (I mean marking) the new nests by raking across the tracks made by the female as it left.  It saved a bit of time but it was still a long morning of work.

Capturing the Diversity – counting the turtle tracks

One of the key conservation tasks at this time of year was to record how many turtles were successfully laying on the beach.  Next morning  I joined Sam on Long Beach.  In the clear early morning light, he let his dog off the lead and we started near the turtle ponds and walked the full length of the beach.  As you went along, you looked out for turtle tracks.  The aim was to count all the tracks and divide by two and that gave you the number of the turtles beaching.  But it was a bit more complicated than that.  You had to beware of those turtles who might come up on the beach and, for whatever reason, decide not to nest that night or abandon their digging before laying any eggs; so called false crawls.  So once you got a track you had to trace where it went and if it led to a nest. So there was much tooing and froing along the beach before we were able to come to the final figure.  The fresh nests were easy to spot as the sand was rucked and often still damp.

The remains of last nights’ activity were plain to see. Some previous nests were disturbed and there were what looked like golf balls strewn over the sand.  Crabs were busily picking at them  in full view.  Because the egg laying season was coming to an end, some of the older nests had little tiny footmarks coming out of them and heading mostly for the sea.  The hatchlings were starting to emerge from nests and hundreds of tiny flippers had crossed the sand from about twenty nests the night before.  I saw one that had not made it, a little dead black body splayed in a hole.  And Sam found one poor hatchling who was still alive but had failed to muster enough strength to emerge from his egg.

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Still stuck in his eggshell

We made our count and recorded it in Sam’s notebook then headed back to the our respective breakfast tables.

Capturing the Diversity – Back to Turtles

Over seven years of travel to Ascension Island, you may notice that I barely mention the turtles, which was the original driving force through Brendan’s work for my connection with the islands.  Somehow, all the trips I ever did were scheduled in the second half of the year when there was not much turtle activity.  So all I tended to see was the evidence literally in the sand.  Every beach was pockmarked with old green turtle nests, unless it was washed daily by the sea, it seemed the turtles had laid their eggs in every possible location.  I did see the odd dried out crusty eggshell but very little of the wastage of turtle breeding was not scavenged by the birds and crabs.  Once my trip came not that far before Christmas and I spied a few large turtles out in the open water.  Apparently these were the males waiting for the females to arrive so they could copulate with them.  I sat on the beach in the twilight one evening and watched a male clumsily climb aboard a female; my voyeurism mostly shrouded by the breaking waves around them.  I had left the island before any females started to come up to lay their eggs, though.

So it was a bit hard to visualise what Long Beach in particular would look like with females laying. I got a bit envious of almost anyone else I talked to on the island who felt it was such a natural part of life.  Why did I keep missing this wonder?