Thirty years dedicated to sea turtle research in The Bahamas has led to sharing that passion with younger generations.
Unique encounters with marine life can turn a fun dive into an unforgettable experience, and there’s little that beats the privilege of gliding alongside a sea turtle—other than running into a shark. If divers revel in these up close encounters, cruisers, too, love to watch turtles swim and see them pop up in some of their favorite anchorages such as in The Bahamas’ Little Harbour, Clarence Town, Elizabeth Harbour, and Little Farmer’s Cay.
Sea turtles are, indeed, beautiful, fascinating creatures in their own right, but they are also keystone species that are major players in the ecosystems. Hawksbill turtles, for example, which are found in Bahamian waters, feed on sponges that grow on coral heads. Sponges compete with new coral growth, which without the hawksbill would damage the health and diversity of the coral reefs we all love to dive and explore. Yet the hawksbill has been exploited for centuries—harvested for its meat and shell—and despite a ban on sea turtle harvest implemented in 2009, the hawksbill and other species continue to be poached. But the future of marine turtles looks brighter.
For nearly 30 years I was the captain of Geronimo, a 70-foot training and oceanic research vessel owned and operated by St. George’s School, a coeducational boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island. I have been working with sea turtles since 1982 when Bob Hueter—now the senior shark scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory—introduced me to the late Archie Carr, who was the world’s leading authority on sea turtles. On a flat calm day just south of the Gulf Stream on our way to Bermuda, Carr and I captured two small loggerheads. That was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with these ocean navigators.
Years later when time came to retire, my companion Barbara and I developed the Family Island Research and Education program (FIRE) to study sea turtles in The Bahamas and educate the next generation of scientists. FIRE has proven an excellent program for a couple of aging retirees. Capturing sea turtles in their Bahamian feeding habitats keeps us active, and working with eager students makes us feel like we are part of the future.
The primary purpose of our current research is to survey turtle populations after the harvest ban came into place—and we are happy to say that they are slowly increasing. Yet long-term institutional commitments are needed for their conservation. For us, that means inspiring the next generation of marine biologists.
As such, we joined forces with the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources and several conservation organizations to develop a plan to eliminate the illegal harvest of sea turtles that continues despite the ban. Our part in this project is to gather anecdotal evidence of illegal harvest by interviewing fishermen, fisheries officers and citizens of all ages. As part of our efforts we visit schools to offer special talks. At the beginning of each school presentation I always ask students, “How many of you have eaten sea turtle?” All too many of them raise their hands.
Among our favorite islands for our research is Cat Island because there are several creeks full of turtles, and we get special assistance from “Uncle” Mark Keasler and his Barracudas. Keasler is a local bonefish and ecotour guide who started the Barracuda program to teach local Cat Island children how to swim. He has also been bonefishing off Cat Island for 25 years, so he knows the creeks far better than we ever will.
One hot morning, Keasler met us in Joe Sound Creek with six of his Barracudas all fired up to help us capture turtles on the ebb. We divided the kids between our boats and went to work. An hour into the ebb we found only two turtles. But as the tide fell the turtles started to appear and soon they were everywhere. Each boat caught 5 turtles, and 3 of the 10 were recaptures.
By the time we had processed and released them the kids were exhausted. They had had the thrill of capturing and handling the animals—even the youngest helped with measuring, tagging and recording data.
We always look forward to our next Cat Island adventure to tag more turtles with the help of yet another group of eager students. In the meantime, Keasler keeps the vision alive with his Barracudas, swimming and learning about the creeks and the importance of turtles in the Bahamian waters. We hope cruisers remember that, too, the next time a turtle pops in by their boat.
— By Stephen Connett, Southern Boating Magazine May 2016