Friday, August 12, 2011

Back to the Bahamas

BP made a horrible mess in the gulf states and has provided money for habitat enhancement for Audubon Shearwaters injured during the gulf oil spill. The wonderful oceanic birds spend most of there lives soaring over deep ocean waters. Their nest sites are located in the Bahamas on small unpopulated rocky islands. They are crevice nesters, so there nest sites are only on islands where the limestone has eroded into little pot holes and cracks. My Earhlam College group has been working on Leaf Cay "rock iguanas" next to the islands where the Shearwaters nest. The iguanas that live on Allan's Cay are unusually large and are very rare. The habitat enhancement will include "broadcast spreading" of rat poison, on the island, to kill the "non-indigenous rodents", rats and mice, which predate on bird eggs and the young chicks. The consequence is that the "Warfarin", might effect the resident iguanas. Our team will attempt to, temporally, remove these rare reptiles to a holding island while the extermination occurs. They will be implanted with transmitters and recaptured and returned to Allen's Cay at a later date.
I will be in the Bahamas from the 20Th of August to the 27Th. Hopefully, there will be no Hurricanes there at the same time.

I arrived in the Bahamas on the 20Th of August and made my way to Yacht Haven on the Nassau waterfront. It was late in the day so I decided to stop for conch fritters and Kalik (local Bahamian beer), before boarding the boat. I should have known that the rest of the crew would be at the Poop Deck also. We discussed the advanced weather report with some trepidation. Four days into the trip, the forecast was for 100 mile per hour winds in our study area. It was too late to cancel the trip, so we decided to head for Allen's Cay as soon as the plate of fritters where gone. Of course we where hopeing that the storm would change course or decrease in strength like the one the week before had done. Hurricanes are fickle that way. We left the dock at six PM and headed south east into the Exhumas. Shelia (the first mate,really the captain) provided dinner while everyone turned-to for sail raising. With Bruce at the helm we made the five hour trip across the yellow bank and anchored between Allan's and Leaf Cay at about ten thirty in the evening. All the talk was about the logistics of capturing the most iguanas in the least amount of time. We where certain our time would be cut short.
Sunday mourning we arose to a magnificent tropical day. Warm soft, humid tropical breeze from the south played with the azure blue water all around us. We had a big breakfast while familiarizing the two Veterinarians on how we capture the iguanas, and how we would deliver them back to the boat for tagging. They decided to use the table on the poop deck for the implant surgery, and the cockpit would due for the recovery room. It was soon realised that to anaesthetise, implant a transmitter and recover a 25 pound iguana might take two to three hours. The original population guess was only 14 large adults. This could easily be done in five days. We now knew we might have to leave on Wednesday, giving us only three days.
Our normal tagging expedition's are in the spring when the nights are cool and the days are warm. In August the nights are warm and the days are hot. It took us a while to realize that the lizards are more active in the early part of the day and hunker down when the sun is high. By Monday we started earlier and rested in the mid-day heat, like the lizards. Monday evening we had caught eight large adults which kept the Vets busy implanting transmitters. I had made several trips to the storage island, in the skiff, leaving off the iguanas and returning for more. The weather report confirmed that Hurricane Irene was going to run right over our position by Thursday. This was terrible news but expected. It would be extremely dangerous to stay past late afternoon. Our crack team of iguana catchers said they would work all mourning and catch as many as they could. We knew that the vets could not process all the animals we had so it was decided to release any unprocessed animals onto the storage island anyway. By 3:00PM we where loading the last iguana into the 16foot skiff and heading out into storm tossed waters with a load of people and lizards. The island has only one good landing beach and by now it was nothing but breaking surf.
The lee side of the island had jagged cliffs with a few spots just low enough to scramble up. The trick was to motor, bow first, into the cliff. Bruce jumbted into the water and held on to the boat while the crew scrambled off the bow onto the very sharp pointy rocks. Up the rocks and onto the high ground every one disappeared and left me to entertain myself while they released the last iguanas. The wind and sea where constantly building while the crowd on the island waited patiently for the last big lizard to recover from anesthesia. An hour went by and finally everyone returned to the pike-up point. Bruce, again, held the boat steady while we recovered every one without injury. This was not a time for injury. We pitched and bobbed back across the channel to the Bahama Star, scrambled aboard and hoisted anchor. By now the wind was up to 30 knots. The ride to Nassau was very rough but tolerable considering the bank would be much rougher in the next 24 hours. By now all the boats that could leave Nassau where gone. This left many large slips at Yacht Haven for us to choose a good storm berth. We stayed on the boat Tuesday night with plans to go on shore in a large steel reinforced house for the main event on Thursday. Since my boat and Marina where directly down wind of Nassau I decided to head for the Airport early on Wednesday mourning and fly out to Morehead City. I arrived at the airport at six AM, by taxi, and proceeded to the Bahamas Air desk. Thirty people where ahead of me and the mood was bleak. No one knew anything and they where expecting a large number of people to arrive from the hotels. Oh, did I mention that everyone in Germany and France had decided to go to the Bahamas in August. That, of course is "HOLIDAY TIME" in Europe. The German couple behind me where surprised to know that August was near peck Hurricane season. They thought it was June.
I stood in line for six hours and finally gave up. The line never moved, because all the flights where cancelled because of the storm. Three hundred and fifty thousand tourists, and me, stuck in Nassau.
I joined the rest of the crew back in the concrete Villa and prepared for the storm. The weather channel and the land lines failed about eight pm and the emergency generator kicked on about then also. The wind was over 60 knots and gusting to 100. I hate it when the long range forecast is correct. It blew all night with lots of rain and lightning. The mourning light peaked through the corners of the shuttered windows. We open the front door to reveal a world of downed trees and boats scattered along the water front. I called Bruce and Shelia on the boat with my handheld radio. All was well.
The owners of the home, Sandy and Hugh Buckner, where so gracious to us we turned to and began the clean up of there huge yard. With a chain saw and rakes we cleared the drive way and cleaned up the back yard by noon. The phone and power lines where still down so I had to call the states to find out where the storm was headed. My wife informed me that the landfall was one mile south of our Marina. That meant I really had to get home and protect my boat and property. I called a taxi again and the same guy picked me up for the third time in 24 hours. When I arrived at Bahamas Air this time I marched right up to the desk, pulled a hundred dollar bill out of my wallet, showed it to the clerk and requested the first flight to the East Coast of the US. She smiled at me, took the hundred and requested my passport and seating preference. In two hours I was sitting in Orlando watching Jim Cantore tracking Irene into Eastern North Carolina by late Friday evening. US Air had told me that New Bern NC would be closed in few hours so I might as well book through to Raleigh. I landed in Raleigh at eleven PM with a plan to rent a car and head for Morehead City. Not a single car company would let me drive their car into a hurricane. I walked out to the taxi area and queried four different drivers. None would accept Five one hundred dollar bills to drive me 130 miles into a hurricane. I called my wife's cousin and she gladly came over to the airport and brought me to her home. The plan was to leave early in the mourning for the coast. Mourning brought high winds and torrential rains. Bonnie's transportation was a Toyota Prius. Yes, we planned to drive an electric car into a hurricane. By 3:00 PM the wind and rain in Raleigh had abated enough to head out. The storm was still on the coast and moving slowly north. Bonnie kept our speed under 45mph. By the time we arrived in New Bern we where driving around downed trees and wires on the interstate. We arrived in Morehead around 5:30 pm. The wind was north west at 40. Good Fortune was healed over 20 degrees and laying heavily on a piling. Both of the stern lines had parted. There was nothing to keep the piling from chewing the toe rail into pieces. The North East wind had already damaged the port rail and now the North West wind was doing the same to the starboard rail. The five hundred dollars I offered the taxi driver would have saved the rails. The yard bill to repair them would be six times that amount. I guess I should have offered them more. The rest of the boat was fine but it will take some time to repair the aft rails.
The lessons learned are, do not go to the Caribean for work or pleasure during Hurricane Season. That is from June 1 throught November 30 for our European friends and for hard headed North Americans.
We plan to return to Allan's Cay to finish the project on the 5TH of May 2012. They have not come to kill the rats yet. And the story continues. Eight months later a similar crowed of hard headed biologist assemble in the Poop Deck restaurant in Nassau to complete the job. More to come

May 6th 2013 We are, indeed, in the Poop Deck Restaurant consuming beer and conch fritters.  Our thought's and discussion are on the iguanas still on Allan's Cay, and how many more we might find.  It was a pleasant trip across the Yellow Bank with seas in the four to five foot rang as the boat smashed into every single one in our path.  When we finally anchored the boat continued to pitched and roll like a wild mustang all night.  The adventure never stops.  Mourning brought the coffee freaks out early and the rest of the "usual suspects" into play as the sun climbed high enough to coax the big lizzards out of there cool dens into the heat of the early day. Everyone was prepared for hard going through the rough terrain of hurricane burned brush and unsettled rocks.  Boots and long pants where the uniform of the day.   The trips main goal was to find any iguanas  on Allan's that we left behind before our evacuation in the teeth of Hurricane Irene.  We would also sample the small surrounding Cays for iguanas with the hope of getting some blood samples for later DNA analysis.  We also planned to use the locating equipment to see how our transported iguanas, to our storage island, are doing.  A transponder was picked up as soon as we arrived on the island and we located a dead iguana with a transmitter under a bush.  We spotted several others from Allan's, and captured several.  Except for the death of one of our implanted lizzards, everything seemed Ok. 

We finished our short trip, having captured 5 more big lizzards,  and headed back to Nassau.  The rodent removal crowed arrived soon after we left, as arranged, and cut several transects across the island and left the appropriate chemicals to eradicate a few thousand house mice.  Soon after a group of scientists arrived to capture a barn owl that had been attracted to the island by the mouse population and had decided it enjoyed snacking on Shearwaters also.  The owl predation on the Shearwaters was the origin of  the concern for the Shearwaters and there habitat.  Now that the food source, the mice, and the owls where gone all should be well on Allan's Cay, and we would return to an island ready for the repopulation of its giant iguanas.

May15th 2013 and we assembled at the Poop Deck Restaurant in preparation for departure to the Allan's Cay group of Islands again.  This is one full year after our last trip and we where traveling with a large group this time.  We planned to do a senses of all the iguanas in the island group and begin transporting the Allan's Cay iguanas  back home.  There where 13 undergrads, two graduate students, two professors, Lynne Piper and myself.  With this large group it seemed like we would have the man and woman power to get the job done.  There where two Grad students with separate interest.  Adriane will be a veterinary student in the fall and brought  the equipment necessary to take blood samples for later DNA studies.  This will be helpful in locating the origins of individual animals in the island group.  Christen was prepared to take tissue samples from plants and animals from all the available habitats to determine food sources of the different island groups of iguanas using stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen.  This information would shed some light on a possible food source on Allan's that might explain the extraordinary, size of the iguanas on the island compared to the relatively smaller size from the other islands in the same group.
We waited for a day with light winds to get a group of students on our storage island.  The wind was relentless so we where forced to land a group in less then good conditions.  Everyone successfully scaled the rocks at the landing site and disappeared onto the island leaving me to entertain myself  again.  The conditions where getting worse, increasing the liability concerns for the students trying to get back into the skiff.  The entire group returned in a rather somber state.  Only five Allan's iguanas where found and only two of them where alive.  We rushed the animals back to the boat and administered subdural fluids.  The animals where in poor shape but the fluids helped.  They where  returned to there part of the island with the hope they would be OK.  We had left the storage island having only recovered 7 of the 17 animals we had placed there.  This was unavoidable due to the wind conditions.

Due to funding short falls from NSF, we may not be able to return next season for another recovery attempt.  The Audubon's Shearwaters are doing well with no owl predation at this writing.  No mice where captured in any of the test traps.  I'm hoping the iguana's are doing well.

The press release from the Bahamas National Trust is;


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