Expedition To Swan Island III: The Surprising Anoles Of Little Swan

Anolis sagrei nelsoni from Little Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison

Anolis sagrei nelsoni from Little Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison

Where the Swans meet.

Where the Swans meet.

My first two posts [1,2] reported on how we got to the Swan Islands and what we found on Great Swan, especially the anoles. But after five days on the island, we had given up hope of crossing the strait to Little Swan Island. The navy on the island had no boat.  The channel between the islands, while narrow, was deep and carried a substantial current.  From the air, it appeared that there were no sandy beaches on which to land, only jagged rocks beyond the jagged reef.

That afternoon, we were surprised to hear the sound of a motor.  From the top of the dilapidated radio tower, someone spotted a small boat headed for the island.  It turned out to be a lobster boat, headed back to the mainland of Honduras after several weeks collecting lobsters offshore.  They were stopping at Swan Island to replenish their supply of plantains and rainwater.  With a little haggling, we were able to persuade the captain to ferry us over to Little Swan the next day and pick us up again several hours later!

Heading to the lobster boat

Heading to the lobster boat

We arranged to leave the next morning at 6 a.m.  The morning came and we packed our gear and went to wait at the dock.  Two men headed from the boat to the shore in rickety-looking fiberglass canoes and we piled in: three in one canoe and two in the other.  Randy and I were sitting in the canoe with three and I was a little nervous.  The lip of the canoe seemed awfully close to the water line and the surf was high enough to bounce us around.  But the sailor paddling us back seemed unconcerned, so away we went.

We made it about halfway to the boat before a wave came up to the lip of the canoe and poured in.  Within moments the canoe had disappeared beneath us and we were bobbing in the water a couple hundred feet from shore.  My first thought was that my camera was going to get wet – the second thought was that it is hard to tread water in hiking boots.  I tried to hold my backpack over the water while we waited for the second canoe to come over.  I was able to toss my bag into the canoe, then we held on to the side of the canoe and were towed back to the shore.  The other canoe and Randy’s rake stayed on the bottom of the ocean.

Our next attempt to reach the boat was successful.  This time, we used three canoes.  The captain of the boat was also able to find three life jackets to send along, just in case.

The crewThe crew of the boat was packing up their hammocks when we came aboard.  The boat was small – perhaps fifty feet in length – but it housed dozens of men.  I couldn’t count them all.  There were definitely over thirty.  They were seated on the stowed canoes, on the floor, and on the stacks of oxygen tanks that lined the deck.  I gathered that they were employed in diving to collect lobster by hand.  They were curious and hospitable, and offered us coffee and breakfast while we chugged over towards Little Swan.

rock jumbleWhen we reached the edge of the reef that surrounds Little Swan, we once again climbed into canoes (with life-jackets!) and started paddling toward shore.  We had to paddle around a bit to find an opening in the reef so we could get close to the shore.  And we got a bit wet again at the shore, where the only option was to jump out and scramble up jumbled boulders.  But we made it!  The search for more reptiles and amphibians commenced.

ravineLittle Swan seemed much like big swan, except perhaps more rugged and difficult to navigate. Great gashes in the rock necessitated frequent climbing, in and out of small gardens where detritus had gathered and lovely trees had taken root.  These cool retreats were where I found the anoles of Little Swan.

A. sagrei nelsoni on Little Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison

A. sagrei nelsoni on Little Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison

And what anoles they were! Shockingly colored with bright yellow-blue stripes running the length of their body.  Like the anoles of Great Swan, they were large and highly dimorphic.  Unlike the anoles of Great Swan, they were found on rocks and tended to run down into cracks in the rocks to hide, not up.  They were less shy and easier to catch than the anoles on Great Swan.  Their dewlaps were also different in coloration: they were a solid light yellow-orange studded with light scales.  I had less opportunity to observe these anoles, since our time on Little Swan was limited and the priority was collecting.  However I am quite convinced that the populations on the two islands are distinct enough that I could easily tell on sight from which island an individual originated.

Photo by Alexis Harrison.

Photo by Alexis Harrison.

Bag o' iguanas.

Bag o’ iguanas.

After six hours exploring Little Swan, the boat returned as promised and we gathered on the rocks to wait for our canoes.  We made it to the boat without incident and with a great feeling of accomplishment and also pleasant fatigue and hunger.  The cook presented us with a gourmet lunch of fried lobster and rice, and the crew brought out a sea turtle they had captured for us to see.  They had also collected a sack of green iguanas somewhere along the way, and they were being butchered in the back of the boat, presumably for dinner.  When we left the boat to return to Big Swan, I was presented with a plastic bag full of lobster tails on ice for us to eat for our dinner.  It was the most delicious food I could remember eating in ages.

Heading Home

The time to depart arrived but the pilot did not.  Our bags were packed, specimens, both live and in formalin, were carefully stowed in bags within boxes and boxes within bags.  We ate breakfast and began watching the sky for the plane.  Ten a.m. arrived and no plane.  Noon came and we ate lunch quickly in case we had to leave quickly. By three in the afternoon, we decided the pilot could not get us back before dark, and therefore wasn’t coming.  We had no way to contact the mainland and no way to know why the pilot had not appeared.  Was it bad weather?  Mechanical problems with the plane?  Had he forgotten?  The possibility of hitching a ride home on a fishing boat was discussed.  I wondered where the sole woman on such a boat would go to the bathroom.  We unpacked our sleeping bags and crossed our fingers.

Salvation!

Salvation!

The next morning was bright and clear, and we again ate breakfast and settled in to watch the sky to the west.  Around eight am we heard the distant hum of a motor.  A few minutes later the plane came into view!  We carted out supplies to the airstrip, loaded up our supplies, and waved goodbye to the Swan Islands.

One thought on “Expedition To Swan Island III: The Surprising Anoles Of Little Swan

  1. Did you see any cats on Little Swan? If they’re not there, maybe that explains the lizards’ lack of skittishness. Sounds like a great adventure and good photos to go with it! Can’t wait to see the genetic results.

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