Successful Surveys in Belize

by Dr. Thomas Rainwater on May 12, 2010


Early on May 2, we met the fisherman and boat driver (also a respected turtle hunter) by the river at St. Paul Bank for the ~1.5 hour journey up the Belize River (to the Big Falls area) for a day of diving for hickatees.  Seven of the boat driver's friends showed up as well, and they soon began walking through the forest to a rendezvous point upriver where we would pick them up for the last few km of the trip to the dive spot.  We tied our canoe off to the back of the boat and headed out.  We had only been moving for about 5 minutes when we saw a large Dermatemys at the surface of the water in the middle of the river.  It quickly darted downward and out of site.  We traveled to a stretch of river that the fisherman said usually has many turtles, and he informed us that hickatee had not been harvested there this year.  However, several of the locals on the trip estimated that ~300-500 Dermatemys are taken from the Belize River from Bermudian Landing to More Tomorrow each year.  


At ~1030 hr we had reached our destination, and seven divers and two of us began searching for turtles, working our way downriver.  In most places, the water was only 7 to 9 feet deep.  Unfortunately, as apparently is often the case in the Belize River, the water was extremely turbid from a recent water release from the dam and from gravel extraction upriver.  Therefore, visibility was very low (< 1 foot).  We had to put our faces just inches from the bottom of the river to see well enough to search through the leaf litter and among logs.  At the end of the day, 16 Dermatemys(and two crocodiles) had been spotted (none captured).


The next afternoon (May 3), we returned to the same area of the Belize River and with some if the same crew set our trammel nets.  After a few hours, we had captured 7 Dermatemys (3 males, 4 females).  An eighth turtle freed itself from the net while we were removing another turtle.  At sunset we pulled in the nets and traveled further upstream where we found a nice spot on the bank and cooked dinner.  There I learned that one of the fisherman that was working with us was the son of a man that worked with John Polisar during his Dermatemys work on the Belize River during the late 1980s-early 1990s.  Apparently, the man's father was the best turtle fisherman in the area back then.  His son appears to be a chip off the old block.  Once it was dark, we worked our way the 10 km back to St. Paul Bank, conducting a spotlight survey.  Although we saw a variety of wildlife including two tapirs and 22 crocodiles, no turtles were spotted.  


On May 5, we traveled back to Gales Point to survey a private pond that was said to contain Dermatemys.  We picked up Kevin Andrewin and the landowner at 1330 hr and headed back out of town.  After driving several miles up the road, we turned onto a smaller road that snaked its way into into dense forest among karst hills.  We drove a few miles into the forest and then parked the car where a large tree had fallen and blocked the road.  From there we unloaded the canoe and gear and the five of us made the 2 km walk through the bush to the pond.  The pond was relatively small (maybe 300 X 50 m?), shrouded in tall trees, and flanked by a mostly steep bank.  We set one trammel net and within an hour had captured 5 Dermatemys.  All were females.  The landowner said he had spotted 27 hickatee in the pond one night, and we were tempted to stay longer.  But it was getting dark and we had plans to survey another area later that evening, so we pulled in the net and headed out.

After taking Kevin and the landowner back to Gales Point, we headed back toward the Western Highway and Mucklehenny Lagoon.  Don Moll also surveyed this area during the early 1980s.  After two days of trying, we had finally found the old logging road that leads to the lagoon earlier that morning and had marked all the major ruts and holes to avoid.  By 2100 hr, we had made it to the lagoon and began a spotlight survey of the lagoon perimeter.  Our friends at Gales Point had told us Mucklehenny Lagoon was well-known for its hickatees and that it was heavily hunted.  This was confirmed when we quickly encountered numerous sticks throughout the lagoon situated upright in the water for setting up nets.  We also found two sizable fish camps on the bank of the lagoon.  The skeleton of an ~ 2.7 m Morelet's crocodile on a high bank next to camp site further suggested hunting on the lagoon.  We spotted two Dermatemys during the survey.  One was a female.  Both were submerged and moving slowly among tree roots and logs.  

We hope to survey Northern Lagoon (south of Belize City) soon and then continue to more sites in the northern part of the country.