Growing up, the movie Jurassic Park scared the living daylights out of me! Not only the questionable topless scene of Jeff Goldblum, but the possibility of prehistoric creatures eating me or my puppy. Fast forward to present day and my irrational fear may have increased since I find myself wandering the island with large prehistoric iguanas.
The Cayman Islands are home to two species iguana, both growing up to 2.5 feet. The most common one we see is the invasive South American Green Iguana, which has long spines trailing down its back. In the early morning, I enjoy sitting on the grass sunning myself and find that I am commonly joined by my huge reptilian neighbours. Not only do they enjoy the sunshine, they like to engage in elaborate territorial displays, shaking their heads and brightly coloured chins like the dancers at a carnival. Luckily, these displays are aren’t directed at me as most iguana bites can be extremely painful.
During an afternoon hike recently on the Mastic Trail through old growth forest, I encountered a rare and stoic Blue Iguana. The Blue Iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands and is suffering severe population declines with reports of only 25 individuals left in 2003. I enjoyed a close encounter with an animal under the risk of extinction but this was both captivating and extremely depressing. Its eyes tracked my movements like a completely sentient being. Fortunately, I learnt after my hike that population numbers have bounced up to 800 due to intensive breeding programs, so my moment of self reflective sadness was somewhat cured.
I’ve always felt safe in the water, as I’ve studied and been involved with the aquatic realm for many years so you can imagine my consternation when a fully grown iguana swam over me as I was peering at jellyfish in the mangroves the other day. Not only are my flamboyant neighbours terrestrial visitors, they have become occasional dive buddies too. They do not dive down to find food but rather swim from one side of an inlet to another with speed. I’ve watched different species fly from the tops of trees during territory disputes, diving into the water with precision. Cue flashback of Pterodactyl from Jurassic Park flying over its prey! It’s also not uncommon to walk through a shopping centre car park and find these ancient predators basking on a tree or on top of your car. Their long claws scratching the hood as they rapidly scramble away does nothing for the paintwork of your car.
Waking up to the beauty of mangroves, parrots and living dinosaurs daily, it’s hard not to get lost in the natural wonders of island life. In addition to my daily forays under the water, I hope to keep on exploring the terrestrial world too, understanding the biology and ecology of our top side environment, and maybe even get to swim with another iguana or two.
Written by: Simone Herrmannsen