Trekking out to Turtles

Cam, Yael and I were sitting at the breakfast table, eating our eggs and lamenting over our low supplies of Marmite (a surprisingly popular commodity) when a security guard appeared at the back door. I wasn’t too sure what to make of this and Cameron went out and spoke with him briefly before calling into the kitchen,

“Two turtles are shagging on the beach!”

We didn’t need to be told twice.

We grabbed a phone for pictures and raced down to the beach, following the guard. I imagined them on the sand in front of the beach bar, giant forms suddenly so ungainly on land. When we reached the water we scanned along the edge looking. The guard looked at our confused expressions and pointed out to the reef.

“There,” he said, “Can you see?” We squinted out into the distance and could just about make out a shape that looked kind of like a rock. It looked tiny so far away. The turtles were diagonally out to see so we started to walk along the beach so we could be in line with them and get a better view. At the landing site some of the locals had gathered with a pair of binoculars and we borrowed them but could still only make out a rough blob. Katana was there and he said,

“There are the turtles out there,” he said, “They are copulating,” The tide was very low so their bodies stuck out of the water in a little mound. It was shallow enough for us to walk over so we dashed into the storage shed they have at the landing station to grab some reef shoes to protect our feet as we went. We started walking out, knowing that Des and the others were on their way and so would catch up with us. We could already see one man out ahead, picking his way across the reef to get to the turtles.

We followed on behind, mostly in silence. I wasn’t even fully awake yet and thoughts swam, half formed, around my head. There’s a pathway through the shallow water that you can follow that gets you out to the barrier reef without damaging the corals. Even still I picked my way through gingerly and cringed at every crunch I heard underfoot. Even though I knew it was mostly shells, rocks and dead corals I couldn’t shake the idea that I was breaking something. This part of the lagoon is not in the marine protected area, and the difference is incredibly marked, especially as you stare down at the swathes of sea urchins that plague the area. There are hundreds of thousands of them everywhere. I dodged them as best I could, not completely trusting my borrowed shoes’ ability to protect my feet from the spikes. They glared back up, their stubby spines casting peculiar shadows along the sea bed.

As we approached the shape of the turtles became clearer. A part of me had been convinced that once we arrived we would see that it had in fact just been a rock, swept up by the incredibly high tides of the full moon. I was very glad to see that it wasn’t.

I could feel the sand grating against the tops of my feet within my rubber shoes and my shorts were wet from where we’d walked through patches of deeper water, but after about thirty minutes we made it to the turtles.

The male slumped his body over the larger female underneath. Both of their eyes were closed and the female’s head was mostly submerged in water, which would have worried me if I didn’t know how long turtles can hold their breath for. They had clearly come up into the lagoon when the tide was higher but had since gotten stranded as the water dissipated. We stood well back, trying not to disturb them and I glanced back to shore where I saw a chain of people walking out towards us.

“They’re like your friends from uni,” Yael joked, referring to a couple that Cam knew who had passed out drunk together naked in the stairwell of their accommodation. The turtles seemed comically human in this moment.

The other man who had arrived before us was called Nicko and he was one of the KCWA security guards. We inched closer to the turtles, drawn like magnets towards their impossibly massive forms. The female must have been at least two metres long and her shell was thick and dense-looking. The male was a bit smaller than her, maybe a metre and a half, with a thinner carapace. We stared at them in wonder and Yael took photos for us on her phone. A man with a walking stick and high-vis yellow vest appeared, although what authority he had never became clear, and he strode past us towards the turtles. We tentatively followed, wanting to get closer to the turtles as well.

Nicko started clapping and the female raised her head out of the water and made a noise that sounded halfway through a sigh and a sneeze. He stepped forward and clapped again and the female shifted her huge form, with the male on top, away from the noise. I asked Yael if I could borrow her phone to take pictures,

“Yeah sure,” she replied and handed it to me. Nicko and I went closer and I filmed them. I thought he knew what he was doing, working for the KCWA. He started clapping again, spooking the male so that he slid off the female’s back and onto the sand, using his big flippers to heave himself along the floor. I stared at him, what the hell was he doing?

Yael gently called my name and suddenly I saw how close I had been. Far too close. These were wild animals, of course human presence would scare them. I was gripped with a guilt that wrapped its way around my throat. I was supposed to be here to do conservation, not to scare the local wildlife. Especially not while they were mating. I had been selfish and let my own desire to see such majestic creatures close up overpower my good sense to give them space. I sprang backwards, mortified by my own ignorance. By this time Des, his sister, her husband and her best friend Monica had arrived along with Katana and a couple of tourists we hadn’t met before.

“I think we should all move back,” Des’s sister said, “Everyone is crowding around them too much,” I nodded silently and shrunk backwards, still feeling a bit sick with myself.

“Yes – we move back,” Katana agreed and we all shuffled back along the sandy floor to give them a wider berth. The breakfast in my stomach curdled as my mind whistled through terrible imaginary consequences from my actions. Maybe something would go wrong with the eggs she was (hopefully) now carrying. Maybe by spooking them we had disoriented them. Maybe they were stressed.

We stood there with the turtles for a long time, debating what to do about them. We were brutally aware of the fact that the tide wasn’t even fully out yet so it would be another four or five hours before there was enough water for them to be able to swim back out to the reef. Luckily it was overcast but that could change very quickly and if the turtles were left, literally, high and dry they might dehydrate and die. We could also see the fishermen in the water closer to the shore with their spear guns and knew that given the smallest chance they would kill a turtle.

“There is a good market for the meat of a turtle,” Katana said, “For them it is a good way of making moneys,” As we spoke I stared down at the floor, still ashamed with myself. I watched brittle stars as they shimmied their long arms in and out of crevices between rocks and sea grass. Once you started noticing them they were everywhere and I tried not to think of how many I had probably stepped on on the way over.

There was a deeper part of the channel that would probably be able to keep the turtles safe if we could get them into it. But if we were going to try to corral them into the deeper water we would need to do it sooner rather than later because the tide was only going to get lower. By this time a couple of spear-fishermen had come to have a look as well.

I was firmly against the idea of trying to move them, after the guilt I felt about disturbing them, but I wasn’t about to speak up. It wasn’t my place. I’m not an expert, I just had a gut feeling. Monica and I stood to the side as Des, Cameron and Nicko started towards the male, trying to herd him towards the channel. He heaved his heavy body a few paces and stopped, slumped with the effort of trying to shift his massive frame. This male had probably hadn’t been on land since he left his nest many years ago and so his muscles weren’t used to the exertion. They pressed closer but the male didn’t move. Nicko gently patted on the base of his shell, which spurred him onwards. I could only imagine the terror he was feeling that would enable him to drag himself through such exhaustion. Soon the patting didn’t work either.

“This just doesn’t feel right,” I confided in Monica.

“No it doesn’t,” Monica agreed.

Then one of the fishermen came along and started pushing down hard on the base of the turtles shell with his foot.

“What the hell is he doing?” I blurted out, horrified.

“Oh my god,” Monica replied. Des’s sister Kim intervened,

“Cam!” She shouted, “Get him to stop.” Cameron turned around, he had only heard Kim calling his name.

“What?” He called back. The fisherman kept going, his foot shoving down on the shell with more force.

“Get him to stop!” We all shouted together. Cameron stepped in front of the fisherman and said something to him and he stepped back. I wiped my hands across my face. This did not feel right at all. But would letting them dry up on the land be any better? Would they dry out if left alone? That was a question we didn’t have an answer to.

The male was exhausted

The female did better, as she had stronger fins and more practice being on land from coming up onto the beach to lay her eggs, but she didn’t want to go into the channel. She started heading towards the reef, which was much further away and much more difficult to get to. She moved for a few metres at a time, hauling her heavy body along. Thankfully there was a deeper pool between her and the reef and she sank into the water, only the top of her shell exposed.

The male was no closer to the channel when we turned around to look. I could feel worry tangling the insides of my stomach. The turtles might not be very stressed by this experience. Or we could be on the brink of giving one of them a heart attack. We just didn’t know.

Eventually, we decided to head back. The female was mostly submerged in water but we decided trying to move the male by force would be too much. Nicko was going to stay and guard them to ensure that no poachers came to kill them. The guilt that had taken hold of me so strongly was beginning to lessen but I wasn’t sure if it was for the right reasons. ‘I hadn’t been the worst of the group. I hadn’t done the most damage therefore what I did was less bad’ I think was the justification I was trying to give myself. I’m not too sure.

The walk back to the shore was long and quiet. Now every crunch I felt underfoot was magnified by a factor of one hundred. I just didn’t want to break anything else. ‘Please just let me not do any more damage’ I thought as we walked. We lost the path and so had to make our way through the corals, carefully choosing our steps so that they fell on the sandy parts of the sea floor.

As we walked I thought about conservation and the murkiness of the waters that surrounded it sometimes. In my head I was used to there being a right way and a wrong way. ‘This is how to benefit the animals. If you do this everything will be fine’ was how I had always imagined it to be. This experience opened my eyes to a whole new side of things where so many factors were unknown. Where there wasn’t a protocol in place or a rule to follow. Sometimes we would make mistakes and sometimes we wouldn’t. Sometimes we would make the right call and sometimes we would make the wrong one but the most important thing would be to keep learning. We had to learn from any mistakes we did make and vow to never make them again.

Both turtles safely made it back into the water.



Itinerary

21/01/19

  • Coral lecture
  • Meeting and planning session with Des
  • Snorkel
  • Beach clean up
  • Watching the blood moon rise
  • Watching the first half of Legend

22/01/19

  • Mating turtles on the beach
  • Planning Emergency Rescue diving courses
  • Snorkel
  • Marketing brainstorm with Monica
  • Finishing Legend (excellent film!)

1 thought on “Trekking out to Turtles

  1. So well summarised, Flora. I felt the trauma all over again while reading this piece. And such a balanced piece it is.

    Like

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