Sunburned, Mud-crusted, Bug-bitten, and Loving It
By Liz Dancer
Dr. Patrick Baker, Liz Dancer, and Phillip Skip Skipwith
To truly capture the essence of my experience as a Coastal Conservation Research Program intern this past summer, I would have to tell you about one particular day in the middle of July. Dr. Patrick Baker, research scientist; Phillip Skip Skipwith, research assistant, Koulang Chey, Asian scholar; and I piled into a car with a bunch of buckets and ventured off to Richard Stockton College. It was a hot, humid day, and we were basted in sun block and bug spray in preparation for the mission at hand.
Normally, you would find me working on my independent research project, monitoring nesting success of least terns at two locations in Cape May County. I also stayed busy helping with the various diamondback terrapin studies which included road patrols, surgical egg retrieval and incubation, and processing both live and dead specimens. However, on this particular afternoon I had a little extra time to participate in a different research activity. As a result, I happily joined the boys on their quest to capture turtles in Lake Fred at Stockton College.
Lake Fred is man-made, however it is host to numerous species of turtles. Our target this day was the large and elusive red-bellied turtle. Dr. Patrick Baker and Skip wanted to capture as many as possible to bring back to a colleague for research purposes. We would have to accomplish this task the old-fashioned way, by hand.
This was not the first time as an intern that I had jumped into murky water to feel around for anything resembling the shell of a turtle. And it certainly was not the first time I trudged through mud up to my waist in the searing Jersey summer heat. So while I had to rely on the more experienced crewmembers to designate drop-offs and underwater hazards, I had a fairly good idea of how to go about searching for our quarry.
And so we began our muddy quest. At my side was my good friend from Cambodia, Koulang who was greatly experienced in the art of tracking down box turtles in his native forests. This was yet another new experience that he was relishing and one which he would excel at! Soon enough, I heard Koulang call out and by the time I managed to turn around, he was holding up a thrashing monster of a turtle. It was approximately 12 inches long from head to tail, which is far larger than the compact, yet attractive terrapins we had become so accustomed to catching. Apparently, he had felt it brush against his leg as it attempted to swim by.
Koulang was not the only one to emerge victoriously with a red-bellied turtle in his hands. Dr. Patrick Baker and Skip also successfully captured a couple more, which they proudly put in the buckets. I suppose I lacked the recklessness of plunging one's hands into muddy water after something that cannot be easily seen. Or maybe I just did not have their luck. However, I graciously accepted one of Skip's turtles and posed for my own cameo, as Koulang reached for his camera.
Our story did not end there. We caught some half a dozen black-skinned, green-eyed beauties and carried them back to the car. But on the way back, we were mighty hungry. With quite a ways to go before returning to Stone Harbor, Dr. Patrick nonchalantly suggested we make a pit-stop at Wawa.
Now, this was where things got especially interesting. Our new, albeit informal survey became counting just how many people would stare at us, still covered head to toe in black Lake Fred mud, as we tromped around ordering sandwiches and grabbing candy. Of course, with gusto, we barged on in and if our appearance didn't raise a few eyebrows, our smell certainly did. Sadly, only the cashier had the nerve to ask just what we had been up to before invading her store. When we replied, catching turtles, she just laughed.
What can I say? This was what my life was like for the ten weeks I spent living and working at the Wetlands Institute. At the end of every day, we'd be climbing up the stairs to our dormitory tired, baked, and covered with mud, sand, and just about anything else imaginable. At night, after kicking back to watch an episode of Grey's Anatomy in the common room, we'd go to bed content with our accomplishments of the day and dreaming of what new adventures awaited us the next.