It has been a busy couple weeks and we finally have a stretch of some windy weather to give us a little down time. The work has been some of the most fun I have ever had. We began by doing some hookah scuba diving and cleaning out underwater exclosure cages. The cages keep out grazers and small fish that eat the sea grass and the experiment uses several combinations of different sized wire mesh to determine just how each class of grazers affects the grasses. Working on it has been hard but fun. We dive for 2-6 hours in a day and often for longer than 2 hours at a time. This is definitely not your recreational diving but i have been having a great time with it none-the-less.
Another side to that project is building and maintaining the cages. We have been sawing through tons of the mesh and building the cages on the surface before setting them up underwater. This is probably the most hazardous thing we have been doing because as you saw tiny metal shards are sent flying all over the place. Don't worry because its always safety first and we don't rush or take and stupid chances. However you do invariably end up with a lot of little pokes and welts. I love it. It makes me feel like I have really been working hard and accomplishing something if I end up sore and a little bruised at the end of the day. Remember the feeling when you were a child running around outside all day getting scraped up, dirty and exhausted? Its that same feeling that I get working here. Every scrape has a story and almost always a funny one.
As for the turtle wrangling aspect of the job, there is nothing in the world quite like it. Ive only caught a couple myself but its amazing. It begins by cruising around in the boat and just looking for turtles. My first thought was that this couldn't possibly work very often but that was before I found out just how many turtles are in Shark Bay. The feeling on the boat is usually quite reserved and silent aside from the occasional tension relieving jokes. You could call it the calm before the storm because once you do spot that turtle things happen fast. One person hops up on the bow and holds on to a rope much like the reins on a horse. Jordy is superb captain and maneuvers the boat just right to get you alongside the turtle. As the person on the bow your heart is racing as you contemplate jumping down into the water directly on top of a massive and extremely powerful reptile with one very large beak on its head.
Those few seconds just before Jordy flips the boat into neutral and gives you the go ahead can feel like hours as the adrenaline pulses through your body. Finally the moment is right and you send yourself careening down onto the beasts back. Now if the water is shallow enough all you need to do is get a good hold on it, point it up and stand up but in the deeper water everything gets a bit trickier. Either way there is always someone else on board the boat just waiting to jump in and help if needed and help is usually needed. The boat gets anchored and we bring the turtle around back where we use a harness and winch or just some good old fashioned elbow grease to get it up on board. Measurements are taken, tags are applied and the GoPro camera package is set in place on its back. This is all done in as efficient a manner as possible to reduce the amount of stress put on the turtle. Of course jumping on its back in the water might seem like an aggressive way to get it in the first place but the truth is that it has the least impact. With nets and entanglement is common and often harms the animal. We put our turtles back in as good a shape as before we captured them, only with a few more temporary accessories or turtle bling. The whole process from capture to release takes about 30 minutes.
The camera package is attached with 4 hour dissolving links so the next day we are back out in the water locating and picking up tags. It is a lot of fun to watch the videos of turtles you have caught. You get to know them a little and they all have quite unique personalities. We have accumulated quite a bit of data already and are making great steps into understanding the foraging habits of both Green and Loggerhead Turtles. I love being a science nerd.