Dateline: February 24, 2014 – Praia do Forte, Brazil
I can’t say the turtles saved this trip, but at least they made me feel better.
My relationship with sea turtles is complicated. I will stop almost anything I am doing to watch one of these beautiful creatures swim by, but from time to time, we are also competitors, hunting the same waters. They are also outrageously cute, far more so than sea lions, so the risk of hooking one accidentally is something I take quite seriously, and when they show up on a reef, I usually will leave and let them frolic.
Your basic sea turtle. I did not take this picture. You can tell because there is not a fish in it.
Gratuitous cute baby turtle photo.
This makes what I am about to tell you all the more shocking. Of course, you all know that Jaime Hamamoto is a bad person who will stop at nothing in her vicious, competitive quest to catch more fish than me. But even I was shocked to discover, through apparently reliable if inexpensive sources, that Jaime not only fails to share my compassion for these wondrous creatures, but that she actually considers them a food item. That’s right – JAIME HAMAMOTO EATS SEA TURTLES.
This fact is less verified than it is relevant, but I still think it is important for you all to know.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog. You will all of course recall my last fishing trip to Brazil – an unmitigated disaster in 2012. I didn’t end up naked, which is a plus (don’t click HERE) but that was just about the only upside.
After that debacle, the first person to console me was Dr. Alfredo Carvalho. Dr. Carvalho, who insists that I call him Alfie, is a world-class ichthyologist who has identified dozens of nearly impossible species for me. He takes it as a personal challenge to track down anything I send him, whether it’s from his back yard in Brazil or halfway across the world. It was Alfie who suggested that I try fishing in Salvador, where deep water is close to shore and there are a lot of species I have only seen in books, mostly the ones written by Alfie.
One of my favorite books ever, and it’s in Portuguese.
Dr. Alfredo Carvalho – the good-looking one on the right.
Two years later, in February of 2014, that I had another business trip to Brazil. I called Alfie and let him know I was coming, and he organized everything from there. We would go to Salvador, at Praia do Forte, and fish on a research vessel that chases deep water-species. The boat was owned by Projeto Tamar, a non-profit group established in 1980 which is dedicated to preserving sea turtles in Brazil. (www.tamar.org.br/)
It looked so good on paper. It would be a chance to re-establish some good feelings in my bumpy relationship with Brazil (Details here,) catch up with some old friends, and make some new ones. And there appeared to be a huge batch of species and world record opportunities. What could go wrong?
Of course, every time I ask that question, something goes terribly wrong.
We showed up at Praia do Forte on a Saturday morning. It was a a beautiful, palm-studded piece of tropical paradise, with the Projeto Tamar facility right on the water. The station itself is quite a tourist attraction, with beautiful displays of sea life and conservation programs. Alfie made me promise not to fish in the aquariums.
This picture is deceptive – this is the only calm corner of a small harbor.
The view from my room.
At the station, Alfie introduced me to his good friend, Guy Marcovaldi. Guy is the Director of Projeto Tamar, and he is about the best friend a Brazilian sea turtle could have.
Guy Marcovaldi with one of his fans.
Guy at the office.
He and his wife have spent much of their lives heading conservation efforts for these gentle creatures, and in the last two decades, the group has released over eight million hatchlings into the wild.
Hatchlings head for the sea. There is nothing cuter than a baby turtle.
Well, maybe one thing. Yes, that’s Gisele Bundchen, well-known offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.
How could Jaime eat these gentle creatures?
As I had flown in the night before for some business meetings, things had looked great, but I wasn’t staying right on the coast, so I didn’t notice that it was really, really windy. I was also unaware that it had been really, really windy for the better part of a week, and the seas were pushed up to a positively gigantic state. Oops.
This was guaranteed seasick weather – big waves, some up to 20 feet – plus solid wind to push the boat in all sorts of nauseating directions. The heavy current would also be almost impossible to fish in anything but very shallow water – the drift would be fast enough to troll for wahoo, and I’ve already caught those.
Yes, we went out in this crap. Did you expect anything else?
But I was here, and Guy and the crew were game to go. The Projeto Tamar interns take turns working on the boat – they were a great bunch of college kids, mostly Brazilian with one American thrown in. We loaded on the Teahupoo, which is Portuguese for “barf until you touch land,” and headed off into certain frustration.
The Teahupoo. We were on the boat for five hours, although most lunches stayed onboard for less than two.
About a mile out, we bucked our first 15-footer. Then it got worse. One by one, the crew went rail bunny. I began getting major-league nauseated – the kind of feeling you get when the Tigers turn over a one-run lead to their bullpen. About five miles out, which took the better part of an hour, we were over some modest 300-foot reefs and set up to try our luck.
Guy never stopped smiling and he tried his level best to get me some fish. He tried to time the swells and power the boat to match the drift, but it was a confused sea and even with two pounds of weight on my line, I barely hit the bottom and was scoping out line to a difficult angle. We were bouncing 10-15 feet with every wave, and just hanging on was work.
I caught one fish – a wenchman snapper – which I had unfortunately caught previously. I knew there were deeper reefs positively loaded with new species, but there would be no way to reach these until the conditions improved. I was anguished – another feeling I get when the Tigers turn over a one-run lead to their bullpen.
The fish of the day. I thought this photo was horizontal when I took it.
We got back in the late afternoon, shaken but thrilled to be in one piece. Sure, I was disappointed that the fishing wasn’t any better, but this was up to no one but the Fish Gods, who hate me. Evening featured a pleasant dinner back at the hotel – me, Alfie, and the owner, a Swiss national who had moved to Brazil many years before. A caipirinha or two improved my attitude, but I also knew the seas weren’t going to be appreciably better in the morning. We spoke well into the evening, and Alfie assured me that even if it wasn’t on this trip, Brazil held a lot of species for me in the future. His knowledge was positively amazing – I had gone from wanting to never visit Brazil again to realizing I could fish a lifetime here and still not get all the good spots.
Well into a beautiful tropical evening. And yes, I went and fished the harbor until the middle of the night.
In the morning, Alfie and I wandered over to the lagoon in town. I had no idea what could live in there, but I love coming in to a new place and seeing what I can figure out. I had my two “go to” baits with me – shrimp and white bread. It was a lovely morning, and it was a relief to be on solid ground.
Praia do Forte lagoon. It’s calm.
I suspected that I would catch tilapia, which have apparently been placed in every body of water worldwide through some dark conspiracy, likely involving Jaime. (Who eats sea turtles.) Tilapia irritate me because they are nearly impossible to tell apart, and just as I was working myself up into an anti-tilapia frenzy, I caught something that astonished me. I got a pacu, and a new one at that.
A type of pacu, and a new species. Suddenly, my attitude improved.
We fished a while longer, enjoying the scenery and chatting about other Brazil locations. When then had lunch and, with stubborn resignation, headed to the Teahupoo. The rest of the afternoon almost, ALMOST made me forget the sea conditions.
We motored out again, with a group of doomed-looking interns, and while the waves had gotten more predictable, we were still looking at ten-foot seas. I caught two fish, and one of them made the trip worthwhile – although I didn’t know this for sure until two months later. The first fish, pulled up out of 400 feet after a stiff fight, was a beautiful queen snapper.
I had caught them before, but it was nice to have something dignified for a photo.
Then I got something weird. It would have been great to describe a dramatic fight here, but the plain truth is that I didn’t even feel the bite. We were pitching up and down so hard I was more concerned with hanging on, and it was only in the last 50 feet of reeling that I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was something small and undramatic in the line, perhaps a fish, perhaps a plastic bag. I flipped it up onto the deck – it was some kind of dogfish. I couldn’t examine it too closely, because if I looked down for very long, I was going to get sick.
The nondescript dogfish. Note the excitement from the deckhand in the background.
In the next two months, we struggled with an identification, but finally, after Herculean efforts from Dr. Carvalho and Martini Arostegui, the creature was pinned down as a Cuban dogfish. It was not only a new species, but it also solved a four year-old mystery on another ID, so it really counted for two. Best of all, it was a world record, because everyone else who had ever caught one had more shame than I did. I had stumbled in to world record # 91. Nine to go.
We spent the evening having a lovely queen snapper dinner, and I said goodbye to Alfie, who headed back to Sao Paulo.
The next day, I of course got up early and fished the harbor reef for a few hours, just to see if I could scrape up one more species. I worked my way through dozens of plain brown damselfish, and as I reached the end of the reef and was about to go in for lunch and my flight back to Sao Paulo, something cool happened.
There, right in front of me, was a sea turtle, just resting in the sun.
I spent about 10 minutes just looking at her, thinking about the improbability of her survival to get to this spot, and thinking about how amazing it was that all of the people at Projeto Tamar had come together to help these animals. (Even though lots of other people had done irresponsible things that had made this all necessary in the first place.) And the whole idea left me with some hope for humanity, except for Jaime, which made me feel better.
No sea turtles were actually harmed in the making of this blog.