The overzealous scientist, the immigrants and some bottles of Coke

Carlos Diez, yours truly with porn 'stache and research subjetc: a large male hawksbill caught free-diving (with a little help of the "tanquecito")

Isla de Mona is a small island located midway between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Uninhabited, it’s a nature reserve which few can visit and a major rookery for hawksbill sea turtles. A very nice research program has been running uninterruptedly since the early 90's, led by Robert Van Dam and Carlos Diez. It consists in genetic work, population biology of adult and juvenile turtles, etc. Night and early morning beach patrols are standard fare during the nesting season.

One of the peculiarities of this tiny piece of US territory is that during night patrols you may stumble upon not only nesting hawksbills and feral pigs, but also illegal Cuban and Dominican immigrants. When they make landfall its either because they were shortchanged by the traffickers (“We’re here, the bus stop for San Juan is just behind that hill”), or because engine failure kept them from reaching mainland Puerto Rico. For the Cubans it doesn't really matter as once their feet touch US soil they're granted asylum. Coast Guard will pick them up and bring them to “La Florida”. For the others, most of them Dominicans, landing on Mona spells disaster as they know they’ll be sent back to La República, every last bit of their dream gone up in smoke: courage, life savings and money borrowed at ruinous rates. These dark thoughts often trigger hostile feelings towards those who find them marooned on Mona. Anger subsides, though, when they realize that peaceful surrender is the only option to make it out alive.

During one dark night in 2003, I was doing a solo turtle patrol when I suddenly heard voices coming out of the bushes right next to me. Quite a surprise when you know that except for the three Guards sleeping at the post, the other four people who are supposed to be on the Island are all working on other beaches! Your heart travels up your throat and back in a second but you keep your cool. It was a group of scared, dehydrated Cubans who after two and a half days adrift on a broken down panga had managed to reach terra firma. They thought I was a police officer: “Oye chico, tenemo’ sed, queremo’ Coca Cola”. I firmly declared I was a turtle biologist and that I’d take them to the post only after finishing my shift at midnight. In the meantime, they could come with me if they wanted.

Of course they did, as Mona is as beautiful as it's dangerous; there is not a drop of fresh water, I was their best chance of survival.

So, a team of fourteen mildly motivated research assistants led by an overzealous scientist-in-training set off to collect genetic samples of hawksbills.

My Cuban friends were relieved when at last the science was over and we reached Sardinera, the main camp.

I fully understood that those Cokes celebrated the beginning of a new life. 

¡Suerte, compadres!

How the backpack was invented (Photo: R. Tapilatu)