Today we spent our first full day on Culebra Island, Puerto Rico! At 5:45 am. we woke up bright and early to begin our daily beach patrols. Half the group, fully clad in closed toed shoes and covered in bug spray, hiked to Resaca beach while the other half hiked to Brava. The students going to Resaca piled into the white jeep we used for hillier parts of the island, while the rest piled into a golf-cart; we rode out together to experience our first adventure!
Both beaches opened into an expanse of soft, caramel sand, and were edged on either side with almost mountainous green and rocky ridges, but Resaca, the beach I went to, required you to hike down about a mile of steep, rocky trail to get to it. The trek was physically exhausting, but very rewarding, as the beach at the end of it was one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen. Blue waves, lighted by colorful sunrise hues, crashed heavily against the sandy ridges and rocky shores in the distance; not a soul was on the beach.
Our group of five students, headed by Kelly, one of the lead turtle biologists and professors on the trip, walked the beach together searching for nests a Green or Leatherback sea turtle might have lain the night before. A couple of old nests lined the sand above the waterline, but no new nests were found. The walk was brisk since we had to get back to the jeep by eight and the hike up proved even more demanding. Exhausted, and more then a little sweaty, we trekked back to the jeep and returned to our lodging. After changing into bathing suits, and eating a quick oatmeal breakfast, we prepared to go out on boats headed by Carlos and Nilda, local turtle biologists whose teams we would work with.
The dock where the boats sat was a quick walk down the road from our house, but since one of the boats was having engine trouble, a few students had to go by car to reach Manglar Bay. I went by boat; the ride was thrilling and fast and offered a great view of the islands surrounding mainland Puerto Rico. Manglar Bay is part of Culebra and is a known sea turtle foraging ground. We stopped at a small, wooden dock edging the bay and swam to reach the spot where our boat would throw down a net. The water was crystal clear and fairly warm, and mangroves and sea stars were found along the bay’s edge. We came to Manglar to catch turtles for tagging as part of Carlos’ permitted research project and a large net was placed across the narrow part of the bay for the purpose of safely capturing sea turtles. We swam in pairs along the net, and if a turtle was spotted, we were meant to untangle it and signal the boat to come pick it up. We caught two medium sized Green turtles within the first ten minutes after the net was place, but then we had to lift the net because a manatee was spotted! If a manatee were to get caught in the net it would probably suffocate or die of stress so we took the net from the area and decided to leave Manglar for the day.
Before we left, we swam back to the little dock and ate after the turtles were worked up on the boat. We helped Carlos’ team work up the turtles by tagging their flippers, scanning for microchip PIT tags under their skin, weighing them, measuring their carapaces, looking for scars, writing down the information, and then releasing the turtles back to the water in a timely manner.
Our first turtle at Manglar Bay
Then we boated over to Mosquito Bay, another known turtle foraging area. When we first arrived, I saw about 4 or five turtle heads bobbing in the water as they came up to breathe, but we only caught one large Green sea turtle after placing the net in three different areas across the Bay. The edges of Mosquito bay were lined with rocks and as I swam around with my partner, I saw multitudes of colorful fish.
We boated home at around 3:30 pm. after working up the final turtle, said good bye to Carlos and his team, walked to our lodging, showered, rested, and then made a delicious spaghetti dinner! Jeremy, one of our assistant professors, said the tomato sauce was his great grandmother’s recipe, and everyone chipped in to help cook. After dinner we went to bed early to rest up for the next exciting day!