Ninja Turtle

Published: February 1st 2012
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Ninja TurtleNinja TurtleNinja Turtle

check out the size of the remora attached to him!
I was asked to help with a local scientific group in their quest to count, measure, and tag the turtle population of southern Belize, and of course I jumped at the chance! Three days of snorkeling and counting turtles while staying out on the cayes sounded like the job for me....

I was excited, but a bit intimidated, as we loaded up the boat and began to head out to the cayes that morning. I was the only rookie (and not native born) on the team, and besides that I didn't know most of the scientific turtle terms! For example, we were identifying the species, measuring the carapace three ways, and recording if they are male or female turtles. Well, now that I'm educated, let me share; there are four species of turtle in Belize- Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, and Leatherback -but I sure didn't know the difference and of course they didn't have any pictures for me to look at; the carapace is a fancy word for shell; and the female tail is longer. This was my favorite explaination....longer than what? Sure that's easy to identify if I have a male and female of the same species and same age right in front of me but how the heck do I identify the difference during a swim by?

They laughed at me and told me not to worry - I'll be in charge of taking pictures.


Our goal was to survey each of the protected marine reserves in Southern Belize, starting with the Silk Cayes and Gladden Spit. Seven of us would jump in the water and snorkel in a straight line while being a visibility length apart. This way we would cover the most area and record any turtles spotted. If the turtle was within reach, we were to signal to either of our experienced fishermen, Donovan or Brian, and he would come and try to capture the turtle to bring it into the boat for extensive measurements, photos, and tagging. We got a thirty second crash course on how to capture a turtle, but I sure wasn't planning on practicing to call in the professionals! We snorkeled for almost an hour, covering about 3/4 of a mile and no one saw any turtles - BOO HOO. So our captain picked us up and took us over to a spot nearby where he knew they gathered - under the fishermen cleaning their lobster, conch, and fish catches of the day!

Hurray! We spotted three turtles right off the bat, and were all instructed to jump in. Our leader pointed to the biggest turtle, and motioned that we should start with that guy. Let me just say now that I know there were mistakes made almost every step of the way, so maybe I'll start pointing them out now. Mistake One: Seven of us jumped into a shallow water (about 8 foot) feeding area that was swarming with turtles, huge rays, and even a nurse shark and our first order of business was to capture the large male turtle. Two: We surrounded him and Donovan lined up behind him. Three: Him being a 300+lb male Loggerhead turtle who was over 100 years old, and covered in barnacles and algae. Donovan being a 100lb trim Belizean fisherman. Ninja turtle seemed very large and cumbersome, until he felt that man on his back, OF COURSE! (Mistake #4, why are we capturing/harrassing them? Where is the line between needing scientific data and harrassing the very population you're claiming to save? I could do an entire blog discussing that! ) At that moment he would show his power and zoom off like he had hydrothrusters, throwing Donovan in the opposite direction...Whoa! I started yelling up to the boat that this guy was too huge, please just throw us the measuring tape and we'll get what we can in-water! But repeated requests were ignorned, and about 4 more attempts to capture him were made. Five, six, seven the mistakes continue....

At this point, I was a bit freaked out, this turtle was HUGE, so I turned to go back to the boat, and my path was interuppted by a five foot wing span spotted eagle ray. I mean RIGHT next to me! I'm snorkeling! No wetsuit. I feel very exposed and continue towards the boat. Meanwhile, the team turns their focus to two smaller females nearer to the boat, and i pause to take pictures as they try to haul her up...

"Look out behind you!"

and then I felt something CLAMP on my back. I quickly turned to look at what it was, but its weight was extraordinary and I couldn't turn. I was thrashing and kicking on the surface, trying to look over my shoulder, and then I felt him clamp tighter.

I finally started screaming.

Somehow, Brian had the where-with-all to choke the turtle, forcing the tight beak clamping down to release and be pushed away from me. Soon after Brian was pushing me towards the boat and out of the water and Rita was trying to haul me up (because there was no ladder) and I'm kicking like crazy --- get this -- not unlike a female turtle right next to me that the captain and team leader are trying to haul up as she's trying to bite and twist her flippers !! I'm serious, this happened! Turns out Rita is trying to pull me through a cross V bar in the panic and has to drop me in the water again and finally I'm in the boat just....


....actually for days it was all I could say or think about. "I can't believe that huge F*%#ing turtle BIT ME!"

I was the most medically trained person on our team, with an Emergency First Response Cert and some recent DAN courses on Scuba and Marine Injury Management, but I failed to do anything correctly. I blame it on the shock, and am confident that I would have acted differently had someone ELSE been the patient. But there I was, turtle bit, in total shock, with a bunch of strangers and two more days of turtle surveys.

BTW, I am so unbelievably lucky that Ninja did not intend to take an actual BITE out of my back. Loggerhead turtles regularly feast on crabs, lobster, mollusks, and conch - their strong beaks crunching right through the shells with no problem! So clearly he just wanted to send a friendly message - Get. Out. OF. HERE! And now looking back, this reaction was completely predictable and warranted and I simply know better. But at the time I blindly followed my leader's instructions because I wanted to be a team player and wanted their approval. The Biggest Mistake.

So here I am, out on an island, with a first aid kit consisting of medications that expired years ago, no pain relievers, and betadine (the sticky brown antiseptic) leaked all over everything else. We managed to use the end of the betadine to sterilize the wound, but could only place a non-sterile sticky guaze over it without tape, since we had none. I didn't insist to go back to shore because a) it didn't break the skin and b) it was on my back, so I couldn't see if it was severe and c) i didn't want to compromise the team's work. I spent the next two nights sleeping on a foam pad on an island with no supplies, nothing sterile, and no running water.

I continued to work with the team, though I was assigned the role of the note-taker in the boat the next day! We visited two more sites and didn't see any more turtles. That second night the pain became almost unbearable and I was lying on my stomach complaining of a huge turtle standing on my back! I could barely stand or breathe, and everything ached. Still I didn't ask to go to shore.

The last day we were scheduled to go down to the Sapodilla Cayes, a place I still hadn't visited in Belize. (And you know that's something!) What a treacherous trip! The waves were huge, the wind was whipping, and we were getting soaked and socked by spray from every direction! But on this day I insisted I snorkel the survey...I was feeling a bit better and wanted to see this coral! The corals were BEAUTIFUL, but after a while my fingers felt numb, the pressing on my back returned, and it was a struggle for me to get back into the boat that time. We did see one Hawksbill right as we were about to leave.

We got back to the village at around noon and Rita told me that my bite mark was looking very black and yellow and gross. That means it's finally time to see the doctor!

And what a medical recovery it would be - that story in another blog coming soon!

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Already eyeing me.Already eyeing me.
Already eyeing me.

I'll admit, I've acted quite threateningly
Donovan and BriDonovan and Bri
Donovan and Bri

properly handling the small female
Right after the biteRight after the bite
Right after the bite

Unreal that it didn't break the skin or tear out a chunk!

1st February 2012

That\'s quite an adventure. I\'m glad you are ok!
1st February 2012

so S succumbing to peer pressure...yikes! Good thing Mr. Loggerhead was being friendly!
22nd February 2014

can i comment again?
i've seen this scar, that is STILL there, and it's huge. I thank God that the poor turtle didn't take a big bite chunk out of her back. the nerves were clamped by the big beak so she still has issues with that bite site all these years later. We decided that NO, this was not the way to treat the turtles in their own habitat and YES they had the right to try and scare the humans away. A lesson learned, many lessons including the correct first aid items that should have been on board, a ladder to get in the boat and many more. Hoping the others on this journey have learned lessons too. much love to my stephanie!!

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