It’s so funny how after you meet someone in this field of work, it is never the last you see of them. I met Catherine Booker 2 years ago at the Cape Eleuthera Institute and we did a few months of Shark research together. She told me one day we would end up working on another project together somehow, and the following year I certainly did. She invited me to join Community Conch for their Andros 2010 session where I spent a week sailing down the seemingly untouched reefs and mangroves of South Andros. It was a wonderful experience, but little did I know that it would secure me an eternal spot in the Community Conch circle.
Now, here I am again with the Community Conch crew in Exuma at the Perry Marine Institute on Lee Stocking Island! To minimize observer bias, and because I had previous experience with their work, I have become the dedicated Tow Baby of the trip. You’re probably wondering what in the world a Tow Baby is. Well, I guess you can imagine a little girl strolling along, dragging her beloved doll baby behind her on the ground, that doll baby would be me, except I am in 15-20ft of ocean and armed with a counter in search of conch. All day long, for 4K at a time, twice or three times a day I scour the bottom looking out for our little conch buddies. It sounds grueling, but somewhere in between choking on seawater during rough seas or chomping down on my snorkel so it doesn’t fly out of my mouth, its actually quite enjoyable.
Before I slide into the water for a towing session, the first thing I do is put on my wetsuit. I’m sure you’re thinking I’m crazy for wearing a 5mm full wetsuit in 80 degree water, however, being towed at 5 knots results in an automatic cooling system. I actually get quite cold after a full session. After that, its pretty straight forward, mask, fins, snorkel, counter and last but not least my favourite song bobbing around in my head, and its anchors away. Once in the water, I slip my foot into the loop at the end a rope that is cleated off at the stern on the boat, sort of in the style of putting your foot into the stirrup of a horse saddle. As soon as I give the signal that I’m ready to go, whoever is driving the boat, usually Martha Davis, lines herself up with the transect line on the GPS, which can take a few minutes. Its hard lining yourself up with an imaginary line in the middle of the ocean! When Martha is comfortably on the transect line, she gives me the ‘OK’ to start counting and I get to work.
While being towed along the transect line, I look 3 meters to both my left and right so that the transect is actually 6 meters wide. I count the conch that fall into this 6 meter range as I’m being towed. So, if I am skimming along the surface and all of a sudden, a conch comes into view, I count it and I also have to think “QUICK! What life stage was it?” Yes, we not only have to count them, but count them in their life stage categories. If the shell is 5cm or less, it’s just a baby, so it is counted as a juvenile. If the shell is larger than 5cm but it lacks a fully flared lip, it is not quite an adult, therefore it is counted as a sub-adult. Sub-adults also have the pet name ‘rollers’ as without the ‘doorstop’ of a fully flared lip, they can roll around on the sea bottom. Lastly, if the shell has a fully flared lip, it is counted as an adult. So, back to being towed in the water. When I do see one and identify its lifestage, depending on the amount I see, I would either click my counter if it is the lifestage in abundance, or I would communicate what I saw to the other person on the boat watching out for my hand signals. To ensure we understand each other we figure out what hand signal I would be using of reach lifestage before I get in the water. And that is basically it for the next 3000m of the tow.
The life of a Tow Baby is not for the weak, neither is it for those that cannot count past 10, however, it is one that I now look forward to every summer and I’m glad I decided to join the team again.