Swamps, Swampers & Marshmallows – two scientific nights in Turtle Harbor

We have to tell you about the best two days of our stay at the Iguana Station. It was incredible!

Last Thursday we – that means Jacob, Linda, Andrea and Steve – started our trip to Turtle Harbor. At 6:00am we loaded a boat with tents, equipment for the population studies, and a lot of food.  The boat trip was a perfect start to the day: a calm sea, wonderful landscape, and a gentle sunshine.

However, these idyllic conditions collapsed soon after we reached the place we wanted to be, because hundreds of insects like sandflies and mosquitos welcomed us.  The only way to stay alive was to arm ourselves with insect repellent and baby oil. We searched for a perfect place for our camp and we found it: a mix of beach, vegetation, and pine forest. When we built a fire with such ease we felt a bit like the survival experts on TV.

The real work started with the hike through Turtle Harbor.  After a few steps we had already discovered a nice plant.  Possibly an undiscovered species?    However, our main job was to find swampers, so we had to keep our eyes open.   That was more difficult than it sounds because, on the one hand, the landscape was so amazing that you were distracted, and on the other hand C. backeri seemed to be camouflaged and well hidden.  After much searching, we finally caught 14 iguanas, which was an impressive number!

Each captured iguana got weighed, measured, and marked. There are different ways of tagging the iguanas. First, the swamper gets some colored beads in his neck, which is similar to a piercing. You use the color code to identify an iguana.  Second, every individual that is caught gets tagged with a chip under the skin.  Then you can simply scan the chip for identification when that iguana is recaptured later. The third way of flagging is the simplest way: just paint a specific number with tip-ex (a.k.a. white-out) on the back of the iguana.  Typically you will also take a picture of the individual to assure the visible information, such as the number and the bead code.

Andrea showed us what is important in the process of tagging and ‘piercing’.  After a training session we were allowed to try it on our own, and that was fun!  At the beginning we were a bit afraid of hurting an iguana, but after a while it worked well and we were a perfect team.

It turned out that Jacob was a good hunter, so he and the other boys caught the most of the iguanas while Andrea and Linda collected the biometric information for the population study. It was a lot of fun but still hard work. For anyone who has not been to the mangroves before: It is hot, stinking, and lousy with mosquitos and DOCTOR FLIES!!!  It was reason enough to have a little break and snack – tuna sandwich and cookies.

In the afternoon Steve and Linda were obsessed with finding a Boa. Accordingly, they ran through the mangroves and searched every nook and cranny, but sadly with no luck…

Back at the camp we had the chance to observe an Eagle Ray in the bay. Fascinating!   We were also treated to an amazing sunset: yet another highlight to complete a remarkable day.   In the northern part of Utila – the place where Turtle Harbor is located – there are not any artificial noises, just the sound of waves and wind…

The night comes quickly here in Honduras.  Consequently, we had to hurry up with lighting the fire. Once it was going we prepared the dinner: baleadas! They were delicious.  Everybody felt satisfied and relaxed afterward, so we all just sat next to the fire and talked about God, the world, and crocodiles until we felt like sleeping.  However, sleep did not come easy as we lay in the tent.  It was still so hot, a bit uncomfortable, and the mosquitos conspired with the sandflies to keep us awake itching for relief. 

After a restless night with just a few short periods of sleep, we used the second day in the “wilderness” to catch as many Swampers as possible. This meant an excursion into the red mangrove was in order. Red mangroves are the most difficult to get through because of their sprawling root systems. Accordingly, we looked like incompetent monkeys as we navigated through the tangles.

In the afternoon our work got delayed by a special occasion: we discovered a male Swamper. It was one of the biggest Swampers that we ever caught. Steve put the noose around the Swamper’s head and pulled the fishing rod backwards in order to catch him. Nobody could believe their eyes: the fishing rod broke because of the huge weight of the iguana, and he then escaped in a tree hole. We had a problem then because the noose was still around the Swamper’s neck.  The tension was thick as we tried to free him from the lasso.  We spent more than one hour of hard work trying to fix the situation, with Steve opening up the tree trunk with a large knife.  At last everyone could breathe easy as we removed the noose from the iguana’s neck.  Exhausted from this experience, we all recovered by eating delicious, fresh palm heart.

On our return trip, we had to cross the canal. This provided a good opportunity to have a little swim in nearly boiling water and to get rid of all the swamp muck that was embedded in our clothes.  Once we were back in the camp it started to rain. Thus, food preparation was more difficult than the day before, but it soon stopped and after a tasty dinner everybody was happy.

It was Jacob’s idea to show Andrea and Steve a good old German tradition: Stockbrot.  Loosely translated, Stockbrot means “stick bread,” and consists of dough wrapped around a stick then baked over a fire.  Within moments he finished preparing the dough, and we roasted marshmallows to smash between honey cookies.  This resulted in such a relaxing time next to the fire.  Dude, the starry sky!!!  Amazing! (Maybe the description of the situation sounds a bit cheesy, but it was exactly like this!)

There is a saying of the local people that means something like this: “Just the mosquitos and sandflies remind you that this is not paradise!”  This is so true… as soon as you leave the secure area of smoke you get attacked by them in swarms.

On Saturday morning we woke up early and started to pack the equipment. It turned out that the tuna can we left outside the day before was a perfect trap to attract hermit crabs because there were plenty of them. While waiting for the boat that would bring us back to East Harbor, Andrea and Steve became alerted to a very big iguana tail that hung out of a tree hole. It seemed a bit like a compensation for the failed capture the day before when we realized how big this male was.  Of course, we wanted to apprehend this individual for the population study! That meant hard work for Steve again, and just a few moments before the boat arrived he succeeded in taking the male out of the hole.   We logged the data and now the male Swamper lives with a number on his back, a pit-tag under his skin, and some lovely locking beads on his neck.

Thus ends our story. In conclusion, despite a lot of horrible bugs, the awful stench emanating from our bodies after 2 days in the wild, and a poor night’s sleep in an extremely hot tent, it was the best trip we ever did!  We’ll never forget the time we spent here!

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~ by iguana321 on September 7, 2011.

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