August 2006 Turtling Trip - Chipola River, North Florida
I joined Chris Lechowicz (see his website (www.graptemys.com) for a long weekend in the Florida Panhandle with a two-phased goal in mind. Firstly, we participated in a clean-up of Spring Creek near Marianna, Jackson County, Florida on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2006 organized by George Heinrich and Tim Walsh of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust.
Spring Creek is a near-pristine, clear-flowing waterway that's shallow enough to wade in nearly everywhere. The bottom is sand and shells of Corbicula clams, seen covering the bottom in the shot below.
Seventeen people showed up in canoes and kayaks to cruise the creek and pick up as much trash as we could load into bags. That turned out to be an estimated half-ton, and we later admitted we were up against a more daunting task than anyone guessed at first. Still, we had a huge impact on the unsightly floating stuff, especially on the first mile or two.
How can a few dumb, redneck assholes enjoy leisurely floating down such a beautiful creek on a lazy summer day, and then throw all their crap in the same water, spoiling it ? Incredible !
By afternoon, our vessels resembled garbage scows, and we deserved some fun time chasing turtles. Loggerhead musks scurrying along the bottom were by far the most common species.
Juveniles were numerous, but adults were present too (below). A few juvies were basking on small limbs protruding above the water, but most were seen underwater as they moved across the current, unlike the shells and debris that tended to bump along downstream with the current.
The enlarged heads (macrocephaly) on the big guys is an adaptation for crushing clams, a major source of food in the creek. The oldest, largest turtles had the biggest heads. This would be the same for another species we encountered later - Barbour's map Graptemys barbouri. That's a huge old female Chris found on the bottom while snorkeling. That ol' girl had seen some pain in her life: both of her front legs were gone, and her smoothly worn shell had lots of nicks and nibbles on the edges.
We also observed a cottonmouth Agkistrodon piscivorous on shore at the edge of the creek - the first any of us had ever seen there. No one managed to take a photo of it. Brown water snakes Nerodia taxispilota (below), on the other hand, were much more abundant, and easier to catch by hand and with cameras.
Near the junction with the Chipola River, we started seeing more Barbour's map turtles basking on partially submerged trees along the shore. They were ultra wary, but we did manage to surprise a few juveniles that were definitely not as alert as the adults. There were even some fresh hatchlings out that couldn't have been more than a week or two old. The two below are probably one- and two-year olds.
All in all, it was a great day, even though I once again had to admit defeat in my goal of the past several decades of seeing an alligator snapping turtle Macrochelys temminckii in the wild. I checked the muddy shallows in hopes of spotting a juvenile, but it looked like my quarry would remain elusive. I thought about 'gator snappers on and off all evening during Chris's presentation on the natural history and conservation of map turtles (genus Graptemys) at Chipola College in Marianna.
That night after the PowerPoint presentation, four of the diehard turtlers decided to have another go the next morning. Chris and I met George and Tim Sunday morning and made a beeline down Spring Creek for the Chipola. Only Chris had ever seen alligator snappers in the wild before, and we all knew that our best chance for one was in the larger river. Chris brought his scuba gear along, though we really expected that snorkeling would be our main method of searching. Here we are doing just that at the place where Spring Creek meets the Chipola River:
Loggerheads of all sizes were common here. . . . .
. . . . but it was an underwater sight like this that got everyone's adrenalin pulsing :
That's Chris's shot with his camera protected by a plastic housing. It was a 6" female G. barbouri anchoring herself to the bottom as the moderately swift current tried to swish us into the river. Here she is later in a pseudo basking pose:
We had a blast catching, photographing and measuring turtles for an hour at this idyllic location before moving downstream into the much colder Chipola. By early afternoon, flotillas of weekend tubers were starting to reach that part of the river and spooking the more nervous turtles. We tried to move ahead of them until we found a perfect deadfall tree with turtles adorning the several protruding limbs.
We decided to stop there and try to find them on the bottom. The water was murkier and deeper there, and it was a challenge just to swim down and check the bottom with masks. Chris and George are clinging to submerged tree limbs, while Tim is standing on the tree's trunk, not walking on water. He couldn't have guessed at that moment that his next dive would be the one that would make our day!
When Tim came up next, he blurted out the words we were all dying to hear -- " Alligator snapper ! It's huge, and it's right underneath me in about 10 feet of water ! " Tim explained exactly how it was sitting tucked under a log, its big yellow head pointed toward shore. I rushed to his side and dove in vain several times to see it. I was certain it would get disturbed and disappear into the depths without my ever laying eyes on it. That's when we all noticed Chris frantically donning his scuba gear by the canoe. Seconds later, he disappeared beneath the surface. We anxiously watched his bubbles rise, hoping, hoping . . . . . YES !
I wish I'd gotten a shot of that gaping maw breaking the surface near Tim, and the look of thrill and awe on his face when it leaned toward him. It looked like a monster from hell rising to get him, mainly because none of us could see Chris's hands on the back of its shell as he strained to lift it. He'd fully inflated his BC and was kicking as hard as he could with flippers to bring the struggling behemoth up, hoping one of us would come over to help. But for a few seconds, all we could see was the turtle - a surreal sight as it seemed to be rising to chomp some pesky human butts.
Naturally, we all had to take turns playing with the massive turtle. Weight estimates ran between 40 and 60 pounds as we all had a chance to hold it. Below, left to right, that's Tim Walsh, George Heinrich, and me (Bill Love). The looks of exhilaration and triumph on our faces nicely sums up the group mood ending the day with a find like that!
After some pics of the obvious male along shore, we let him plow back past me to sink into the depths just as a bunch of curious tubers was passing. We told them to keep their feet up out of the water and their beer cans and bottles in their coolers. Otherwise, the river's ancient guardian might exact its revenge.
What a grand finale to a great day of river turtling!
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