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Matador Ambassador Jess Cramp gives another update from her research trip to Palmerston Island.

The bell began to ring in rapid succession, marking the day’s first church service. Mama Aka, one of the few elderly women on Palmerston Island, led the congregation into a polyphonic hymn, sung in Cook Islands Maori. Her voice was harrowing as it traveled through the pre-dawn light and ricocheted around the rusty, corrugated steel walls of our island abode: an open room with four beds and a concrete floor, which housed our seven-person research team and all of our supplies for the month. I gradually awoke, fumbled for the opening in my mosquito net, and tiptoed my way past friends who managed to sleep through the joyous crescendo of the local men singing “heyyyyy-yah-HEY!”

It was Wednesday, day 10 of 30. The local islanders were devout Christians. Church services also happened on Friday mornings and three times on Sunday, a day of strictly enforced quietude where no working, playing, or even swimming was allowed.

Photo: Tina Weier

It had rained hard last night and I wondered how Tina, a photographer and coral reef biologist who I lived with back on Rarotonga, fared in her hammock under the ramshackle gazebo near the water. Crossing the wet, cardboard footpath which connected our sleeping quarters to the kitchen, through the remains of the far wall I saw our Chief Scientist sitting quietly near a coconut palm, the steam from his instant coffee getting lost in his long, grey beard. He was always the first one up.

With the morning sun beginning to cast pink blankets over the raked, white sand that surrounded us, the gentle humming of the generator could be heard in the distance. The island had a limited diesel supply and could only afford power for 6-10 hours per day, just enough to keep food from spoiling if doors were kept tightly shut during off hours. It had been nine months since the last cargo ship and many of the men, having run out of razors long ago, had the facial hair to prove it. Luckily, the next ship was due in just a week’s time. The rest of the group began to stir, and with our duties now fairly well defined, we inhaled our breakfast, slathered on sunscreen, and readied our gear for another day searching for sea turtles in the piercing heat of the South Pacific sun.

We pushed off while the sun was still low to allow David, one of our local research assistants, to spot the large coral heads — or “bommies,” as they’re called in this part of the world — with ample time to avoid running the aluminum boat aground. A few coconuts bobbed along in our wake. We sputtered slowly toward Tom’s Island, whose uninhabited beaches we would be surveying this morning for sea turtle tracks or other signs of their nesting. If any nests were found, we’d mark them with a GPS, a branch, and a piece of duct tape from the roll which now lived around my bicep. The oldest ones would be excavated to help us calculate success rates.

Photo: Jason Green

The color of the lagoon changed from turquoise to purple-blue as we passed through deeper water. “Turtle!” yelled Jason, our bearded Kiwi captain who took a month vacation from his teaching duties to participate in the expedition and sequester himself on this remote atoll with three American water-women, two British turtle fanatics, and a pretty Australian lass who was wearing a sequined top today, but loved the dirty work of opening rotted, unhatched turtle eggs. He quickly put the engine at idle, and as quietly as possible we floated on the glassy lagoon, observing the creature, whose head was poking out for a breath.

We could tell by the rounded shape of its beak that it was a green sea turtle, but before we could discern other identifying characteristics, like the presence of a tail or any notches or marks on its shell, or carapace, it ducked underwater.

After four hours of circumnavigating the high tide line of Tom’s motu, traipsing through the mid-island swamp-stream in the morning sun and digging through coarse sand and broken pieces of coral until our fingernails bled, it was time for lunch. We met the other half of our group near the boat, compared notes, and decided that today, it would be more comfortable to eat while sitting in the shallows of the lagoon, rather than near the densely packed palm and pandanus trees, where armies of hungry mosquitoes awaited a fresh feed.

The work was tiring and the daytime meals simple: fresh-baked bread (or dense cement loaf, depending on who had baking duty the previous day), jam, peanut butter, marmite, and a piece of parrot fish or two left over from last night. We felt really lucky to still have a few oranges to share from a special care package sent by our teammate Kelly’s fiancé, and aboard our aluminum boat we had some extra bottles of water and a ration of artificial mango flavoring. Meant for one bottle, we shared it between four. The water was warm but hydrating, and nevertheless satisfying.

While our skin begged for the respite of a few moments of shade, our spirits continued to bolster, not just from the billion shades of blue that lay before us, but because we had successfully uncovered two baby turtles — or hatchlings — that had become lodged in the compacted sand while trying to make their break for the sea. Their 80-odd brothers and sisters hatched days before, and without us, we thought, they would certainly have died before having the chance to dodge fish, birds, and other predators as newbies in the big blue Pacific.

During lunch in the lazy lagoon, we learned to laugh out our jitters for the afternoon activity, the in-water surveys. Although the environment was pristine, teeming with fish and the healthiest coral I’d ever seen, the hearty population of grey reef sharks, who always seemed to get a little too close, caused a tremble or two. We paired up at first in twos and then in threes to snorkel large sections searching for turtles. But in our state of heightened awareness we wondered, who was more curious, them or us?



About The Author

Jess Cramp

Jess Cramp is a scientist, surfer, diver, pilot, writer, and conservationist whose philanthropic adventures have taken her from a field hospital in post-earthquake Haiti to a remote atoll in the South Pacific, where she lived for 3 years, spearheading the effort for the Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary, which was established in December 2012. Currently without a permanent address, Jess is in a different country every month, and in the water as much as possible. She splits her time between assisting the Cook Islands government in establishing a large-scale marine park, and helping her own burgeoning organization, Sharks Pacific, to become a key player in shark research and conservation. A contributor to Women’s Adventure Magazine, Escape Magazine, and National Geographic’s Adventure blog, Jess is a consummate optimist, whose positive energy is contagious, along with her willingness to spend however long it takes to see the projects she’s working on through to produce tangible results. “For me,” Jess says, “traveling is all about gaining hands-on experience to better understand community level impacts and encouraging locals to get involved.” She is driven to take risks in life, not just in sports.

  • Tod Mesirow

    great story. came across it at random, away for a few days in Akumal, Mexico, where we saw local turtles on a dive the other day. read the Dot Earth piece Andy Revkin wrote in the NYTimes. really interesting work you’re doing.

    • Jessica Cramp

      Hi Tod,
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Can’t say that life is too bad at the moment- sharks and turtles in the South Pacific is an interesting gig :). Viva Mexico!

  • Teresa

    Hi Jess, While it is enjoyable to see the world through a perfectly edited story, photos, and video. I think it would do the animal world some good if you showed the impact of people/organizations who contribute to the pollution, sickness and death of our wildlife. I spent 3 weeks on 2 Hawaiian Islands. While on Maui a green sea turtle came to shore nearly everyday. I knew it was the same turtle because he has a large tumor like growth on his mouth. It is not a barnacle. We called wildlife rescue to learn more about green sea turtles. Was this normal we asked? Answer …more and more we see this, some think it is due to sunscreen, others say it is herpes, one person said it was what happens when you touch a turtle. We asked marine biologists at the whale foundation, they weren’t sure either. What I noticed was that when the turtle came ashore, he drew a small crowd of amateur photographers, curious children and dumb adults. Children quickly lost interest, as the turtle did nothing but lay there. The photographers looked for his best-side, and the dumb adults walked right up to him and touched his shell for a picture. This infuriated me, as there are signs all over the beach advising NO Touching the Sea turtles! When I saw this occur I spoke up, telling the 240 pound man, Don’t touch! Then a woman in her wedding gown rushed up and tossed the train of her gown upon the turtles shell, as she jumped in delight, the photo snapped. I tried to speak to the happy couple, but my English was wasted on the two Asian foreigners. I travel often, generally into the wild. I am not sponsored, nor am I paid to show how beautiful travel is to pricey pristine preserves. When I return home, my interest is in learning to do something different, that makes a positive difference on the Earth. Like bringing less and taking out the trash other crews leave behind. Sadly the footprint many eco-friendly projects create is staggering. Saving sharks with Sanctuaries?, how will you teach the sharks to stay in their sanctuaries? Or is the sanctuaries just a line in the water that keeps poachers out? I love sharks, I don’t eat them, nor do I use any product made from them. Besides just looking at your beautiful images of a healthy preserve, what can I do to help make the open ocean healthier? Not just the preserves that only a few entitled people will ever see in real life. I recycle and reuse, I don’t use pesticides, herbicides, or GMO foods. I use my own bags when shopping, and I don’t buy food that comes in plastic and/or cardboard. I’m a member of Greenpeace, and the Nature Conservancy. I am retired, and I could be off seeing the beautiful and majestic all around us, but I know every time I go somewhere, I contribute to the pollution of land and sea. So I try to keep a balance. I stay home and I use less, but the problem is sometimes I feel use-less. What can someone like me do to help make our planet a co-habitation for all life.

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