Swan Island Expedition: Day 3

Marine Debris carpets the northeaster section of the islands. (c) Kip Evans Photography


Article reposted from http://blog.sylviaearlealliance.org/

After discussions with the soldiers stationed on the island, the expedition leaders decided to divide and conquer. A small contingent would hike the island to explore what terrestrial species might be encountered while the reef and shark teams would continue to follow their dive itinerary. For the hikers there were reports of a small mammal called the “Aguti” or “Watusa” and an opportunity to see native iguanas as well as both the brown and yellow footed boobies.

We joined with the soldiers that had generously offered to guide us to the “Channel” for an early start and embarked on our journey. Hiking along the island’s air strip gave us perspective on the island’s history, as we could see the foundations of cement buildings and the extended runway gave us visions of an island bustling with activity during World War II and for a brief time with the CIA’s Radio Free America broadcasts. But now most of the island has fallen into disrepair and decay, with only seven soldiers assigned to the island.

The nesting booby spotted during an exploratory hike. (c) Kip Evans Photography

As we continued on, the history of the island was swallowed by the encroaching natural vegetation on a mission to recapture the island from its human custodians. Surrounded by the verdant growth and enveloped by the equatorial heat, we marched on. As we walked we kept our eyes peeled for the native animals and birds. We could hear the calls away in the overgrowth, but the Aguti remained as elusive as their description of half squirrel, half rat would suggest. However we were fortunate enough to find nesting booby.

Following the sound of the ocean, we emerged from our pseudo-jungle onto the beach and were greeted by a sight we had not expected. Marine debris. Flotsam. Jetsam. Evidence of the invasive nature of our species thrown up on the beach. We quietly surveyed what would have been a beautiful beach, had it not been for the uncountable plastic bottles, glass, shoes, floats, toy fragments, roll-on deodorant containers, nets, and other markers of our “advanced” society. Stunned, we began to document the detritus inflicted on this isolated island, a reminder of how truly far the hand of our consumer society reaches.

Distracted from our initial goal, and disheartened by the spectacle of refuse littering the beach, we realized that we would need to return back to welcome Dr. Earle to Swan Island. Our spirits raised with the new goal and we trudged our way back to the landing strip.

With only a short wait and very little fanfare, Dr. Earle and David Shaw, the last members to join the expedition, bumped and thumped their way down the airstrip to our welcoming committee. Introductions were made as Dr. Earle, ever gracious, visited with our hosts and explored their base. Given the grand tour by the soldiers, and even joining the them in a mock workout session, Dr. Earle made friends as she does where ever she goes. Finally departure time arrived and and our group moved on to the Aggressor II to prepare for the final dives of the day.

With Dr. Earle aboard the Aggressor II, we made our way to what the soldiers on the island refer to the “Channel”. Their descriptions of this area, the break water between Swan Island and Lesser Swan, related tales of multiple shark sightings and healthy fish populations. With high expectations for a productive final dive of the day, and joined by our esteemed leader Dr. Earle, the teams suited up and entered the water.

­Dr. Earle describes her first dive at the Swan Islands, “Well today was my first experience taking a look at the underwater scenery of the Swan Islands. There are plenty of reasons for hope here. The diversity of fish we saw today was above normal, but the actual count of fish was below, way below normal from my experience elsewhere. I think it has suffered from overfishing, it has also been right in the crosshairs of a number of major hurricanes in the last decade or so including Mitch that really cut a swath through this part of the world. Storms are natural, and a healthy robust system in some ways bends with the storms and comes out afterwards with a system that has lots of elements of renewal, but coupled with overfishing it takes more time to recover and in some cases they never recover.”

Text by Dustin Boeger