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2004-08-19 16:32:48

Seeking The Iguana

10-day expedition, $1,800, the opportunity to save an endangered species.

ANDROS ISLAND, THE BAHAMAS -- With our two small boats already scraping bottom 40 yards off the sharp, rocky shoreline, we -- like Christopher Columbus and his landing crew -- had to disembark and wade ashore to our first Bahamas island landing.

Columbus' famous 1492 landing was at San Salvador, a minor island in the Bahamas chain. Our landing early in May was 200 miles to the west of San Salvador, on Andros, the largest of the Bahamian islands --100 by 40 miles -- and much of it still unexplored 512 years after Columbus' voyage of discovery.

We were a 14-member Shedd Aquarium team arriving to catch Andros iguanas, an endangered lizard species. Most of the group were Shedd employees, but four of us were tourists who paid $1,800 for the privilege of taking part in the 10-day expedition.

The appeal of the trip was the opportunity to be a part of an effort to save an endangered species by helping scientists struggling to understand its life cycles.

We shipped out on the Shedd's utilitarian 80-foot Coral Reef II, the only ocean-going research vessel in the world owned and operated by an aquarium. Anchored in deep Bahamian waters, the Coral Reef was our home base at night as we traveled on small motorboats by day to desert islands along Andros' eastern shore for capture-and-release work.

Where we went, there were no beaches, just sharp, rocky terrain covered with thickets of small pines, palms and choking undergrowth. With no tourist or local markets to visit during our voyage, the souvenirs we took home were proudly won battle scars rather than T-shirts, funny hats and seashells. We sported assorted scrapes and bruises (from falling on the rocky terrain in pursuit of darting lizards), sunburns, rashes, sprains and pain (from abuse of long-dormant muscles).

"I hope these don't heal up until I get home," says Nancy McCarthy, a fellow passenger, late in our week on Andros. She was running her fingers over long scratches on her forearm left by the raking rear-leg claws of a captured lizard she was holding.

"I want to prove to the boys that I was in the middle of the action," says McCarthy, a 46-year-old Grayslake, Ill., housewife who had left her husband and teenage sons at home to join the trip.

The expedition, offered once a year, might not be everybody's ideal vacation. During the 10 days, you share cramped quarters with strangers on a small vessel, spending more than a week of 12-hour days laboring in the hot sun.

"My eco-slaves" is how Chuck Knapp jokingly referred to us paying customers and the Chicago-based Shedd staffers who had won highly coveted spots on the expedition.

Knapp, 34, spends nearly half of every year in the most isolated parts of the Bahamas, tracking and observing endangered iguana species, mostly by himself.

Knapp, a part-time conservationist at the Shedd who expects to earn his Ph.D. in biology from the University of Florida next year, is one of the world's foremost iguana experts.

The largest lizards in the New World (some species reach 6 feet in length), most iguana species are endangered. Since 1996, Knapp has been working to avert the extinction of the iguana species Cyclura cychlura cychlura that is unique to Andros, the sparsely populated western island in the Bahamas chain.

An estimated 3,500 Andros iguanas live in southern Andros, which is largely unexplored and empty of humans.

Hunters and stray domestic dogs, cats and pigs from human settlements killed off iguanas in populated areas in north Andros. Now, settlements are creeping into Andros' southern wilderness areas. Knapp is rushing to learn the basic life cycles and territorial needs of wild Andros iguanas to help the government create effective protected wilderness reserves for the lizards.

"If you know their life history," says Knapp, "you can write the conservation program and terms of management for them."

Much of the year his work is solitary as he tracks and observes the iguanas. But once a year, paid volunteers and staff help, by capturing animals for tagging and measurement. They also take blood samples and outfit selected lizards with radio tracking transmitters.

"It's crucial to get this extra help," says Knapp. "We didn't design the trip to make money. We did it to get help and to get some of the work costs back. I based the idea on the sorts of things Earthwatch does to bring in the public to help in its projects," he says, alluding to the national organization that links up paying volunteers with worthy environmental causes.

The Shedd doesn't keep Andros iguanas for display in Chicago. It does have Marley and Eleanor, a pair of breeding Cayman Island iguanas, the most endangered species of all. The pair, part of an international captive breeding program trying to rescue the species, will be the stars of a permanent exhibit opening at the Shedd this fall.

Forming teams

Like most of those joining Knapp's 2004 Andros iguana capture, I flew into Miami on a Friday afternoon to board the Coral Reef at its riverside berth in downtown Miami. That night, the paying passengers and Shedd crew dined together in Miami's South Beach to get acquainted. It was the last meal we had to pay for until our return to Miami 10 days later.

We spent Friday night on the boat in the marina, two people assigned to each of its cramped but comfortable air-conditioned cabins.

Saturday morning, we embarked on a 24-hour voyage to Andros. The trip, normally made over smooth seas, was rocky. A prescription motion-sickness patch seemed to save me from my propensity for seasickness.

Early Sunday morning, we were eating breakfast in calm waters off Andros. Afterward, we boarded two motorboats filled with catching and measuring paraphernalia, and motored to a capture site, where we waded the last few feet to Andros' rocky shore.

Knapp split the group into teams of five and lectured us on capture techniques. Team members were to spread about 30 feet apart and begin sweeping through the scrawny forest and underbrush.

If we spotted one of the creatures, we were to shout "Iguana!" The spotter was not to take his eyes off the beast. Those equipped with fishermen's dip nets on the end of 8-foot poles would close in, while the rest of us would herd the animal toward a net.

The iguanas are amazingly quick, he warned, so even when they are successfully netted, other team members had to leap to take hold of them before they could slip free.

He cautioned us to take care with each step, as the rocky terrain, resembling coral and just as sharp, was full of fissures and holes that can painfully trip an explorer up.

"And look out for this," he says, pointing to a shrubby clump of small, oblong leaves with pointy ends that droops toward the ground.

"It's the poisonwood tree, and it's everywhere. It causes a rash just like poison ivy."

The search

Thus instructed, we began our first excursion into the bush. Fifteen minutes later, somebody in my party yelled, "Iguana!" The shout shot my adrenaline up, and I wheeled and started rushing through the brush toward the spotter, poisonwood leaves slapping me in the face.

In my 60th year and more generously proportioned than I've ever been in my life, I was the oldest and slowest member of the group. When I caught up with the others, who failed to net the beast, I gripped a handy branch while catching my breath. Someone pointed out that it was poisonwood.

We caught only three animals the first day, but as the week drew on, we became increasingly adept in our skills and teamwork.

Slow and cautious as I was about my footing, I had my eyes on the ground so much that I found more iguana scat -- poop that Knapp likes to examine for food content -- than anyone else. I was dubbed "Scat Man."

Even when we cornered iguanas, the underbrush often was so thick and the lizard's skin colors so seamlessly blended with the greens and browns of the landscape that I had trouble spotting them.

Still, I found ways to make myself useful. Once caught, we put the lizards in bags, which I often volunteered to carry out of the woods back to the shoreline base camp we established each day.

After lunch, which we brought with us in coolers from the Coral Reef, I often sat and entered data into record-keeping books as Knapp weighed, measured and examined the morning captures.

The animals were taken back to the capture site and released after an identifying number was painted on their sides with white typewriter correction fluid.

The work, the relaxation

We usually worked until sundown and were dog-tired as our motorboats sped several miles back to the mother ship, each of us eager for a turn in one of the Coral Reef's three showers, which were always amply supplied with hot water.

Each of us pulled galley duty twice during the trip, assigned to setting the tables and cleaning them off for the Coral Reef's estimable chef, Charles Julian.

Julian and co-captains John Rothchild and Lou Roth are the Coral Reef's only crew. They and the vessel are on voyages for about six months a year, either on Shedd business or when the vessel is leased to collection and research teams from other public aquariums, government agencies and universities.

Rothchild, Roth and Julian have spent so much time together at sea that they have come to share a similarly wry sense of humor that keeps Coral Reef dinners, served family-style on two long tables, rollicking with laughter.

As the trip wore on, Knapp was pleased with the dozens of lizards we were catching.

"My large sample sizes of these animals are the result of these expeditions with all this manpower. I don't know how much of this work would get done without the Shedd's help," Knapp says.

Toward the end of our sojourn on Andros, I still had not had the triumphant pleasure of yelling "iguana!" That changed as the group sat down for lunch on the second to last day of hunting. Excusing myself to wander down the shoreline, looking for the backside of a palm for relief, I spotted a huge one.

I was so startled, I couldn't think of what to yell.

"Hey! I've got one here!" I loudly croaked. My companions, sitting and eating 50 yards away, turned toward me with puzzled looks, probably wondering if I'd located more scat.

"There's one right here!" I yelled again, still trying to retrieve the magic word from my memory. By the time the rest of them figured out I was looking at an iguana, it had wandered so far that we lost him.

The last day of hunting, however, I spotted two lizards, each time managing to yell "iguana!" in a timely manner. We caught one, a large, fine-looking male never before captured, and I felt a bit vindicated.

The next day, Saturday, the Coral Reef turned and started the 24-hour run back to Miami, getting us there in time for early Sunday evening flights home.

I went home with only a few minor scrapes, bruises and bug bites. Unlike many on the expedition who suffered rashes, I apparently was immune to poisonwood.

William Mullen, The Chicago Tribune 

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