Disappointing Dermatemys Surveys
by Thomas Rainwater on May 22, 2010
On May 7th, we traveled back to Gales Point to survey Northern Lagoon. As is the case with Southern Lagoon, local biologist Kevin Andrewin and others informed us that Dermatemys is mostly found in the rivers and creeks feeding into the lagoon rather than the lagoon itself. We therefore attempted to focus on the three main creeks emptying into Northern Lagoon: Tum Tum Creek, Freshwater Creek, and Wagner Creek. Like the creeks feeding into Southern Lagoon, these creeks are brackish and dominated by red mangrove. At dark, we made the ~ 45 minute boat ride from Gales Point across Southern Lagoon, through Main Creek, and into and across Northern Lagoon (extreme northwest corner) to the mouth of Tum Tum Creek. Kevin, who knows these lagoons and creeks as well as anyone, captained the boat.
Upon entering the creek, we set a net as we did in Manatee River a week or so ago. The idea was to continue on surveying Tum Tum Creek and check the net on our way back out. However, after traveling less than 1 km, we found that Tum Tum Lagoon was too shallow to cross, and we had to turn back. We reversed course, pulled in the net (empty), and headed back into Northern Lagoon. Based on the shallow conditions in Tum Tum Creek, Kevin was convinced we would get stranded trying to enter Freshwater Creek, so we continued on to Wagner Creek in the southwest corner of Northern Lagoon. This creek proved to be deep enough to travel, but we had to pull and maneuver the boat through some tight spots of thick mangrove to do so. We made it about 2 km up the creek before having to turn back due to shallow water and a seemingly impassable wall of mangrove. No turtles were observed. Kevin said there used to be many Dermatemys in these creeks feeding into Northern Lagoon, but that over the years they have been hunted more heavily than those in Southern Lagoon.
We camped on Gales Point that night and in the morning (May 8th) headed out with Kevin again to Sapodilla Lagoon and Creek. This area is located on the western rim of Western Lagoon and is also dominated by red mangrove. However, Sapodilla Lagoon and especially Sapodilla Creek are known for their strikingly crystal clear water. Perhaps due to the exceptional visibility in the creek, this was the one spot that almost every local fisherman in Gales Point we spoke to said was the place to see Dermatemys. We had loaded our canoe in the boat, and upon arriving in Sapodilla Creek launched it and set two nets across the creek. The locals were not exaggerating about the clarity of water in the creek; you could see straight to the bottom, about 3 meters down. This was especially convenient for us, as we were a bit hesitant to dive this creek; earlier Kevin had informed us that a few years ago, near this area, one of his best hunting dogs was effortlessly pulled under by a huge crocodile right before his eyes, not to be seen again. Kevin added that before that day he had no idea Belize was home to crocs that large. At Kevin‚Äôs suggestion, we left the nets and paddled up the creek, scanning the water column below for turtles. Schools of stone bass darted back and forth and were easily observed from an upright position in the canoe. We continued up the creek through a tunnel of vegetation until it became too narrow to go further. Even this far up, we noted machete-chopped branches, a sign that others (hunters?) had also been here recently. We slowly headed back down the creek toward Kevin and the nets, peering into the clear water for any sign of a turtle. We saw none. We checked the nets and both were empty. Kevin was particularly surprised and disappointed. He said we should have seen at least a few Dermatemys here. He later reckoned that outside hunters had likely discovered this place as well and had been hard at work.