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Kane: Diving for Turtles

12/04/12 5:55PM By Adam Kane
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(Host) Lately, commentator Adam Kane, Co-Director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, has been reflecting on things lost and found - in Lake Champlain.

(Kane) The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum's dive team has a saying: the lake does not give up her secrets easily. Or to paraphrase a more popular expression, sometimes despite our best efforts working in her cold, dark waters, what happens in Lake Champlain stays in Lake Champlain.

For six years we've been working with a team studying the behavior of rare spiny soft shell turtles in Lake Champlain's Missisquoi Bay. Due to human disturbance, loss of habitat, and nest predation, this unique turtle is threatened in Vermont and Canada. For nearly a decade, a handful of turtles have been tagged with transmitters and followed to learn how best to protect them.

In the fall, these turtles burrow under the lake bottom to hibernate. Using the transmitters, each turtle's location is determined within a few feet. A diver then descends to the quiet and featureless lake bottom to search for the turtle's hiding place. When the diver finds a likely lump, they carefully dig up the large, often unhappily thrashing turtle. In an instant the peaceful dive becomes a heart pounding wildlife wrestling match. Fortunately the turtle's disturbance is swift; a few measurements and a fresh transmitter, and it gets released back into the lake for its winter sleep.

As usual, while diving this fall I took dutiful notes in my logbook, which is a Rite in the Rain number 373 (yes, I'm that particular about the brand and model). In these ever-present logbooks I record any secrets the lake cares to yield during dive projects, in this case each turtle's location, dive times, and distinctive turtle nature. There's the reclusive North Hero turtle who winters well south of the other turtles; year after year she shows particular irascibility at being dug up. Or the "River Turtle", who in the past hibernated in the Missisquoi River close to the hustle and bustle of downtown Swanton, but chose this year to sleep instead in Missisquoi Bay with her compatriots.

Though we've always eventually located all the tagged turtles, this fall went particularly quickly: we successfully located ten turtles in only two days. As the diving came to a close, I was buoyed by how quickly the lake had given up her secrets. For once, locating something in Lake Champlain had seemed relatively easy.

But the lake always strongly encourages humility.

When we got to shore my precious logbook was nowhere to be found. It had been inside my clipboard along with my camera and car keys. It must have fallen overboard. Frantic searching was followed by a desperate dive, to no avail.

Having spent a career looking for objects lost underwater, I knew the log was gone. And as the weak November sun set on Missisquoi Bay, I thought of my log sitting on the dark lake bottom, now an object of curiosity to its former subjects.

The lake does not give up her secrets easily after all - and sometimes she takes them back.

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