Crocodiles of Cuba — Spring 2004

Earthwatch Expedition

ETTING TO CUBA is tentative. Common Ground, which is the travel agency licensed by the State Department to handle such things for U.S. citizens, did its best, I am sure, but we did not get our travel documents until the Thursday before our Sunday departure (nail biting time). And then all of it was not in “real” tickets but in the form of vouchers. I went by way of Nassau. (You may know that we of the USA may not go “directly” to Cuba but can go from somewhere else — if you can get a visa. These are our unrealistic, cumbersome, and somewhat dishonest machinations of our governing agencies.)

Indigenous people’s cave in Nassau
Indigenous people’s cave in Nassau

Nassau is “Miami” plus! — with a deep-water harbor, cruise ships coming in to dockside. Main Street full of outsiders. I walked through the residential area and ran across a church parade and children’s band. Kids looked so clean and well groomed for the grand occasion, and they played with gusto. Went to the “Straw Market” and talked with an ancient sitting there in attendance. It is called the straw market because that is what it used to be and “I was here at the beginning,” she said. Now it is a collection of craft shops (some very good) and some junky. Ate crumb-fried conch, which I wanted to taste. It’s not very different from clams, a little more fishy but delicious. Stopped on my way to the airport next day to view the caves where indigenous peoples were thought to shelter.

I was told that my visa was at the Cubana-Air desk at Nassau. No way. At Nassau I was told that it was at Havana and they let me board the plane. At Havana I had to wait on one side of the immigration (for an endless hour) while they hunted down my visa. I was glad I had written down the Spanish for “you hold my visa here.” I finally “got in” and was met by the principal biologist, John Thorbjarnarson (John T.), who, I soon learned, knows our Jim Van Abbema. So I sorta felt at home in Cuba already.

We were registered at the Hotel Plaza, elegantly built in 1905, located on “Central Park”—all the usual amenities except face cloths (I had forgotten that it is the European custom to not supply same), including an in-room frig with beer, rum, soft drinks, and bottled water, and a TV that carried CNN in English.

Met the Team at breakfast, a sumptuous buffet on the top floor of the hotel. The team was comprised of a family (man, wife, and 18-year-old son) from Maryland, a pulmonary therapist from Texas, and an 18-year-old young man from Pennsylvania. Then Havanatur, the official, Cuban government-sponsored touring organization, gave us a ride and walk through the city.

Old Havanna street
Old Havana street

Crumbling elegance, “old world” alleys, brave new structures, crowded living, clean, safe, vibrant, music everywhere, healthy uniformed school children. As Texas Bob put it, can’t help finding Cuban women sexy, and as I might put it, can’t help finding the men most attractive. I saw no solicitation, no begging, no public drunks. We toured the sights, ate at Papa Hemmingway’s favorite place where they have his chair hung on the wall, drank Cuban drinks (a rum with crushed mint and sugar), and got ourselves ready to depart for the research station at 10ish that evening.

We rode at night, and rode and rode and rode. Saw some lights way off the highway, passed an occasional vehicle, finally stopped at about three at a seemingly deserted gas station/refreshment place. Sign said open all night. I used the bushes. But it turned out that the shopkeepers just locked up, turned off the lights, and went to sleep. No business, so why stay awake? But we stayed there because we had to wait for the tide. It was there that I discovered how good our PI’s (Principal Investigator, the experts in biological research) really were. Roberto stargazed with us. And John T. identified night bird calls.

We finally got underway again. We stopped at the village home of one of the researchers for breakfast — ham and cheese sandwiches and Cuban coffee: black, strong, and sweet. The village was a delight to see. The home was of small but ever-so-neat rooms, indoor plumbing (slightly jerry-rigged), a small yard connecting to many neighbors’ yards with animal cages (for a Siamese cat in season, a dachshund who had been hit by a car, and several chickens, etc.), and a laundry space. The family (man, wife, daughter, son, and infant) was warm and gracious and gave us a good traveling respite. The village streets were clean ,with the children going to school in clean uniforms (in use nationwide), and the two shops for food were open and busy, with passing traffic of bikes, horse carts, and bike carts. A few vintage autos and jerry-rigged trucks were sparse.

Village street
Village street

A word about dogs — the above-mentioned dachshund and a cocker spaniel that this family had keeping watch on their roof were the only pure breeds we saw. All other dogs were generic dog, about 40 pounds, thin, smooth coat, any color, mid-sized ears that flop, and a tail carried high that curved over the back. There were many running free, and they tolerated as members of the community. The exception was the cook’s dog at the station that was a mite of a thing with a wiry coat, and her erstwhile companion was a red generic.

We were soon underway again to be stopped by a sign that said “NO PASSING.” Here at the crocodile reserve where penned crocs of various ages are housed, we unloaded the Havanatur bus and, while we waited for our next transport, toured the pens and asked questions and received much croc info. Our next transport was an open-bed, several ton, ancient but rugged truck. The crew piled the luggage thereon and passengers crawled over it. Mercifully, they assigned me to the cab.

We hadn’t gone two yards into the NO PASSING world when we discovered why the change of vehicles — a one-lane dirt road with ruts two feet deep in ill-defined patterns that no bus or car could tolerate. and which took a super driver to navigate. This passage consumed perhaps another hour of Disney World thrill riding and ended in a seasonally dry salt flat, over which a log walkway extended for several hundred yards to vegetated area. Our stuff was again unloaded and we all started toting and trekking that long “logway.” I should mention that all the folks were most considerate of me: I rode not on the back of the open truck, but in the cab with the driver, and when it came to toting, I chose light items and no one complained about their toting my heavier bags.

The logway to the station
The logway to the station

The logway ended at a stream where some of us embarked in a motorboat only to be transferred downstream into a larger motor launch. We had missed the tide after all, and the larger vessel could not make it upstream to the meet the logway. It took the small launch three trips to get us ready to leave for the Station.

The Station — two log houses with thatch roofs and an out building — is located on a bay at the mouth of the river, just about where the states of Los Tunas and Gama meet in a national reserve that spans out on both sides of the larger bay. We landed at the dock (built of logs) and toted our stuff to the larger of the two structures.

“This is your room” — a 5’ x 8’ enclosure, partitioned off from the meeting room. A shelf and rod structure to the left for stowage, a shuttered, unglazed window, a double bed with bare mattress covered with a plastic, something above the head of which was a cloud of netting and on which was a packet with a sheet and an uncovered pillow. I called John to help me turn the mattress around as the plastic cover at the head end was torn and stained. He just tore it off. Then I had to call again to get the shutter opened. A Cuban gentleman came this time. Then I opened the packet of sheets, consisting of a single sheet for my double bed! More negotiation. Got another packet of another shingle sheet, a very decorative pillowcase, and a large green towel. Finally I did have a bed made, of sorts, and with wire and nails I rigged the netting. Then to unpack. I had to brush mouse turds off the shelves to put out my daily stuff. On inquiry I found out that they were rat turds and that maybe they could get a resident “boa to take care of same.” The snake never showed up. The rats made merry with British Bob’s food supply (he is glucose-intolerant and brought some foods for himself) every night, and when that ran out they settled for his anti-biotic creams.

Meanwhile the biologists and three of my teammates were busy installing their tents. The ever-present wind (which heaven designed to keep the insects away) made the task a Herculean one. The wind and the fact that not everyone had enough pegs, which had to be fashioned out of “stuff” at hand, made it a long and cooperative job.

Suppertime, the first of the same menu, with variations, that we were to have for two meals everyday — rice, beans, maybe stewed meat, maybe fried fish, plantain in differing styles, maybe spaghetti, maybe sliced tomatoes or cucumbers or potatoes, a treat (twice) of great lettuce, Coke, orange drink, fruit juice, and Cuban coffee. We ate for most of the stay in the “other” house — the kitchen and the assistants’ dormitory where there was a TV. Peg and helpers finally moved the tables onto the porch of our house, which was light and pleasant.

Then back to the meeting room for an orientation talk. Out came rum and Coke to toast — first me, for this is how I spent my 85th birthday, and then John, whose birthday was the previous day, and then someone else, and someone else. And last, the crocodilians of the world! You know how it goes.

And to BED!

Up early, as is my wont, to toilet and wash — quite a routine — the toilet house was just opposite the open kitchen. In Latin tradition, the tissues are not flushed but deposited (in this case) in an open cardboard carton. Of course, the flies made merry, first in the carton and then in the kitchen. I showered (an overheard pipe, no shower head). Since Texas Bob had been here with Team III and had warned of no place to put anything (there was no seat on the toilet), I always took a plastic chair with me on which to sit and store my clothes. One brushed one’s teeth on the back porch of the lodging and spat the residue to the fiddler crabs.

(Five days into the trip I needed to do some laundry. I took my bag to the only sink structure available — a cement double tub affair, no running water outdoors beyond the kitchen. One of the kitchen men saw my problem and brought me a bucket of warmish water and plugged the drain hole (which drained directly on to the ground at my feet) with a piece of branch and plastic bag. I managed to do my laundry. And then I dug into my travel kit and found my universal sink stopper, a flat rubber disc, which I donated to the men who had to do the dishes in that same sink, no doubt with water of the same tepid temperature.)

Then to my watered down T’ai Chi and Pilates on the porch facing eastward across the bay. There, as I twisted in my warm-ups, I watched the pelicans feed. What fun! They’d dive from way up, with spins sometimes, and had to defend their catch from the ever-thieving laughing gulls. Across the bay, great white herons fished by the island shore. Cormorants and anhingas rested on the oyster pilings, occasionally taking off for breakfast. This is a birder’s place! (See below for a list of birds identified during the trip.)

Chores were allotted — one couple to rake the sand around the compound to keep down the flies, another to sweep the house and porch, and the third to keep the weather (temperature and rainfall) records. The rain gauge was usually empty and was situated in the open next to the solar panels (which served very well, but just in case, there was a generator).

Breakfast — Cuban coffee, crackers and cheese, and cocoa. Cuban coffee was always available all day long with gracious smiles from cook. If you don’t know Cuban coffee, it is strong and sweet and black. Those of you who know my style know I have always taken my coffee milk no sugar. But I really grew to like my “fix,” as Texas Bob called it.

Probing for crocodile eggs
Probing for crocodile eggs

Of course, the crocodiles were the main issue (rather than birds). The first day or so we dug into a nest a few days old. The nest had been previously investigated, each egg marked with an X. The naturalist showed us the age band. Around the middle of the egg a shadowy band appears and widens with age. This egg was about five days old.

Of note! On April 1, Roberto, Cuban biologist, dug into what appeared to be a new nest. He found a plastic bag containing a can of beer — no age band.

On most days we found no new nests. The nesting season seemed to have closed earlier than usual. Then on the very last day of our searching, Manuel, another Cuban naturalist and a great “croc man,” found another nest (nests are found by poking the suspected location with a ¼-inch diameter rod. If an egg is suspected to have been pierced, Manuel (or whomever) feels the end for moisture. If moist, he smells it. There are old nests with decayed eggs, and they do smell. If the odor is “good,” he digs carefully by hand until he extracts all the eggs. Our nest had 25 eggs, still covered with mucus (laid during the previous night). They are white, hard shelled, and look like large vitamin capsules. He marked each with the X. Then for five eggs he measured the length (about 3 inches) and the width (about 1½ inches), weighed them, and carefully replaced each egg. The nest is recovered, marked with a stake, and numbered. All of this data is carefully recorded.

Next croc venture: capturing for statistical analysis. We boated into a shallow salt marsh where several of the men worked a seine net across a narrow reach, and beat the water upstream, hoping to drive crocs into the net. My team did this without much success, but the previous team netted nine that way. John T. blamed it on the tide. However, John worked with a noose on a pole and garroted several. After capture the beasties are very carefully grabbed at the snout, which is taped shut, as are the eyes. They are tied, snout twisted back to hind legs. All this is to keep track of the “herd.”

Project Principal Investigator John Thorbjarnarson weighs crocodile.
Project Principal Investigator John Thorbjarnarson weighs crocodile.

Of the crocs that were brought back to the station, several had markings and a few had tags. They are marked by cutting off scales (which do not grow back) in such manor as to designate (in the case of a nestling) the nest it came from, its I.D. number, or they are tagged with a metal tag between toes of a hind foot. They are sexed, measured, weighed and recorded. The oldest one captured was six years old, about four feet long, and had lost its tagged but was I.D.’d by his clipped scales. There were some two-ear-olds who had no I.D. but their nest I.D. That was remedied.

To do all this we went boating to the nesting beaches and the Salinas (saline rivers) every day, twice a day. We spent about four hours a day motoring and four hours “investigating” — all in a truly grand environment.

Wild Swans—Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang — great book! I read it as my travel book, and it now has a history. I retire early (like 9:00), but folks socialized and the seven-foot partition between my room and the social room did not filter conversation. Justin (the 18 year old traveling solo) and Roberto (the head of Cuba Conservation) had a serious discussion about ethics vs. law. They concluded that law is not necessarily ethical and that one should go the way of ethics. Of course, this discussion took several hours and held my attention. So when I finished with that book, what else to do with the two pounds? I gave it to Justin. He will read it; I am sure.

To return to Havana, we reversed the arriving process, except that from walkway in the salt flat to the crocodile farm we were taken by tractor and cart. I rode with the driver, wild, wild, super Disney this time! And we did the trip in daylight, which enabled us to see the countryside — abandoned rice silos (it’s less costly to import than to grow and process), sugar cane fields and processing plants (in need of refurbishing), and tobacco fields and new drying sheds. Some tree planting as well. These farms are all government cooperatives. In the workers’ housing we saw many new buildings of cement blocks and stucco with reinforced cement roofing (best for hurricane season). There is a movement underway to see that each family has a small plot of land to grow their vegetables, but I didn’t see this.

Got to Havana late. The Plaza had sold our rooms to others! Had to wait until 10:00 p.m. to get located. Ate in Hotel. Got a bath and shampoo and watched CNN until I fell asleep.

Up early. Got a roll of film from Justin to give to Texas Bob to mail to his folks, as Justin will be in Cuba for another two months. Then he was off to meet his Cuban family. Texas Bob and I left together for the airport (no Havanatur showed to take us so we cabbed it).

The Nassau airport was wild. Sunday night — lots of rich gamblers going home after a weekend, students returning to U.S. after spring break, and me. Two hours to get through customs there, and the plane was late taking off. But my EZ Limo man was at LaGuardia to meet me, and I finally arrived home a little after midnight, a good twelve hours after leaving the Plaza in Havana.

— Ruth E. Grauert, April 2004

Cuba Bird List   (Return to text above)

I have not sorted these out. Just listed them in the order in which I identified them.

  1. Rails — two different species.
  2. Great Blue Herons — lots of them
  3. Brown Pelicans — many fishing around the research station
  4. Laughing Gulls trying to steal what pelicans catch
  5. Louisiana Blue Heron — frequent
  6. 6-Great White Heron — frequent
  7. Small Blue Heron
  8. Pigeon
  9. Dove — 2 kinds
  10. Turkey Buzzards — lots
  11. Hawk
  12. Kite
  13. Ibis — (white and brown) — many
  14. Cormorants — many
  15. Anhingas — many
  16. Osprey — three sightings
  17. Stilts — a real beauty — frequent
  18. Roseate Spoonbills — frequent
  19. Flamingos — saw a flight of 50 individuals, frequent on beaches, counted 75 in a salt marsh
  20. Grackle
  21. Ani
  22. Coo coo
  23. Brown Vultures — saw white baby in nest in cactus thicket
  24. Pigmy Owl — one sitting on the radio antenna.
  25. Sand Pipers — lots
  26. Snowy Egret
  27. Cattle Egret
  28. Frigates — several sightings
  29. Yellow Warblers in mangrove branches along streams
  30. Flycatchers (with the Yellow Warblers)
  31. Hummingbird
  32. Coot
  33. Kingfisher — saw only twice
  34. Willet
  35. Cuban White Heron
  36. Black-capped Petrel
  37. Nightjar

This is a pretty good list for a non-birder on a crocodile research team. All of our principal investigators were great naturalists, always ready to I.D. a bird or tree. Perhaps “British Bob” (a fellow team mate) can augment this list.

Click thumbnails to view large photo.

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