The adventure began at 4am at the Raleigh Durham International Airport where our team of 10 students gathered to make the long journey to Puerto Rico! After our initial 30 minute flight to Charlotte, we feasted on some hardy bagels to revive our sleepy spirits and then were joined by our two professors, Matthew and Wendy. Our 3 hour flight to San Juan provided us with a good opportunity to catch up on sleep. Upon arrival to the San Juan airport at 12pm, we met up with Kelly, another turtle expert and professor from St. Croix.
We loaded up two vans and took a scenic drive through the countryside to the northeast end of the island, Fajardo, where we would later board the ferry. Before boarding, we got a quick bite to eat at a small local restaurant on the water, where we proceeded to eat so many quesadillas that they ran out of cheese for the last few people in our team. After a little down time waiting at the ferry terminal we finally boarded a huge ferry, The Big Cat, at 3pm to the small island of Culebra, right off the east side of mainland Puerto Rico. We dropped our bags off on the bottom deck of the ferry, and quickly made our trek up to the top deck to see the amazing view. The approximate 1 hour ferry ride was a great introduction to the beautiful, warm, sunny weather and stunning blue waters of where we would be living for the next two weeks!
When pulling into the dock to Culebra, a few of us were able to catch a quick glimpse of our first sea turtle as it came up for air and was then scared back under water by the ferry. Once on land in Culebra, the professors left to go pick up the rental cars and while we waited for them to come back we chatted with some locals and got to know one of our Culebra hosts, Rolando. We were picked up in our three rental jeeps (later named: The Silver Bullet, Ruby Red Rocket, and Red Delicious) and taken up to our house on the US Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge. The house is on top of a hill and the veranda has a stunning view of the blue water all around us. We had some time to figure out the room situations, settle in, and freshen up, and then we quickly loaded up the cars again to find some much needed dinner! We went to a local favorite called Mamasitas that was all outdoors and located right on the water. After a delicious dinner of whole Red Snapper and tostones (circular plantains), we dropped back by the house to change into our nighttime walking clothes.
We headed down to Soni beach, a short drive down from the house, where we spent the night patrolling for nesting leatherback sea turtles. The beach was beautiful and a perfect night for star gazing as we walked up and down the beach looking for any signs of nesting or movement. After several mistaken identifications of logs for sea turtles, we finally were convinced that the leatherbacks were much larger than the small sticks, coconuts, and rocks that we had mistaken them for. We patrolled for about 3 hours in 3 different shifts, while the others relaxed on the beach and told ghost stories. After a long day of traveling and patrolling the beach, we finally headed back to the house around 12am, took showers, and passed out. Overall, our first day in Puerto Rico left us exhausted and excited for the adventures that lie ahead!
PS: If you have a cat problem at your house, just ask Matthew how to get them to leave! “Ahhhh, Saiiiiii, Ahhhh”!