by Dr. Thomas Rainwater on May 07, 2010
On April 28, we traveled to Gales Point to survey Southern Lagoon. We met with Kevin Andrewin, a Belizean biologist and conservationist who has been working with manatees and hawksbill turtles for years in Southern Lagoon and throughout Belize. He and other residents of Gales Point told us that Dermatemys is still common to abundant in the area, and are so for a couple of reasons. First, they said that people living in the Gales Point area only take Dermatemysoccasionally for subsistence and do not hunt them commercially. One hunter, who was proud of this fact, gladly showed us the shell of a Dermatemys he and his family feasted on for two days around Easter. He said that generally all Gales Point residents are alarmed by "outsiders" that do come into the area take Dermatemys commercially. Second, although people from other areas of Belize do come to Southern Lagoon and associated tributaries to hunt Dermatemys commercially, they are often limited in what they can collect due to the deep water associated with the creeks and rivers that empty into the lagoon. Most commercial hunters in the area collect turtles by diving, but most will not dive in these deep, dark river sections for fear of large crocodiles, sharks, and other potentially dangerous animals they may encounter.
That evening we surveyed the lower sections of Manatee River and Cornhouse Creek. On the way into Manatee River, we stopped to set a net and immediately spotted an adult Dermatemys swimming slowly among the roots of the red mangroves that dominate the area. We set the net and continued on with the surveys. We passed the entrance to Soldier Creek, which according to Kevin and others also harbors substantial numbers of Dermatemys. However, they suggested we not venture into this creek as it is also notorious for its abundance of Africanized bees in the adjacent forest. Just a few weeks ago, the hunter that showed us the turtle shell journeyed into Soldier Creek in a motor boat with two other hunters and were attacked by bees, likely disturbed by the boat engine. They dove into the creek and eventually swam to safety while the bees swarmed the still-running engine. The hunters ended up walking on mangrove roots for about eight hours until they reached solid ground and eventually the road back to Gales Point. The next day, they returned for the boat. The gas had long run out and the engine stopped. There was no longer sign of live bees in the area, but many dead bees littered the floor of the boat and the engine casing. Bees aren't likely to fly at night, but our guides thought it best to steer clear of the creek altogether anyway.
We spotted no additional turtles during the spotlight surveys of Manatee River and Cornhouse Creek. We did capture one Dermatemys in the net, an adult female. This was probably the same turtle we saw while setting the net. We plan to return to Gales Point again in the coming weeks and survey Northern Lagoon and associated tributaries.