Communing with Turtles

As a kid, snorkeling in Michigan never made sense. The water was murky at best and, besides that, you couldn’t imagine anything below the surface but seaweed and trout.  Better to just ignore whatever is down there.   A snorkel in Hawai’i, however, is pure magic.  Your face breaches the waters’ surface and the entire ocean transforms instantly into an epic fantasyland.  Holy mind warp, THAT is down there?!?  Now I understand what all those crazed, saltwater aquarium enthusiasts are pathetically striving for.  Now I understand why to put your head under water.

Reef in Honaunau at the beloved Two Step.  Just two rock steps down and you get THIS.

Reef in Honaunau at the beloved Two Step. Just two rock steps down and you get THIS.

It took me by surprise because the professional shots of various world-class reefs don’t really register as a possible in-person experience, and our location in Hawai’i is based solely on where we can work in exchange for free housing.  Call it luck then that the best two Hawaiian spots to have your underwater mind blown are within a mile of our doorstep.

Formerly annoyed at salt water and its bad taste and general sting-inducing sensations, I am a full-on addict now.  The pictures will do far better (but hardly do it justice) in conveying what is going on down there, but some words would be helpful to explain the motion and sound of the place.

Rock is the foundation for all great reefs, and here it’s relatively fresh lava all rough and poised to rend delicate flesh.  Add coral, which is abrasive in its own right (and you dare not touch for its own health), on top of this and then sprinkle with very stabby urchins and stir with some forceful and literally irresistible wave action and you have a recipe for sweet danger.  Sure, there are gentle areas where the water is crystal-clear calm and everyone lives happily ever after, but all of the best stuff happens in the turbulence.

As the tide comes in, the fish scamper to nibble the newly accessible delicacies and it’s an absolute marvel to witness their interactions with the pounding surf.  Whole schools of fish will swoosh up over a rock only to race back down en masse as the water pours back off.

The sound of fish feeding is a symphony of Pop Rocks in total stereo.  Parrot fish, with their beak mouths, add punctuations like ripping Velcro as they tear algae off of rocks.  Everyone mixes and mingles, occasionally sorting by type, but more often in total oblivion to speciesism (including sharks.  Yes, we swam with sharks.).  They mind your human presence only if you give chase or happen to be holding a spear.  It’s a Hippie dream of peace and love in all the colors of rainbows.  And then there are also turtles.

Green Sea Turtle scoping out the neighborhood.

Green Sea Turtle scoping out the neighborhood.

The perfection of the green sea turtle is its placid demeanor.  Like leaves on the wind they let the water carry them, cruising the waves with utter nonchalance and the barest of energy expenditure (but my money is on an impressive speed ability if motivated).

Much of the day seems to be spent napping on a bed of deep coral while fish nibble away at their accumulated shell algae.  Eventually they’ll surface to breath, take a cruise around the neighborhood to check on the status of the tide, then return for another hidden coral nap.  The time for excitement comes precisely at the time soft flesh should not be in the water; the tide comes in, the waves pound the rocks, and the water is a cauldron of bubbles taking visibility often down to zilch.  Then thru the din you spot that unmistakable shadow.  It is dinner time.

The higher waters expose the weeds in the shallowest parts of the shoreline and the turtles ride the surf in and out over the rocks, craning for a tasty bite.  The armor they wear, before now, seemed merely a defense against predators – what they daily use it for is something more akin to football padding.  The surf sweeps them over and into rocks, but provoking in them only minor course adjustments and the effort required to snatch a bite of dinner before being dragged out to sea or slammed into shore.  Clutching the rocks to avoid a similar trip, I’ve had a turtle ricochet right off of me as it was sucked seaward.  Touching them is necessarily illegal, but I’ve needed to perform some acrobatics to keep them from touching me (some seem strangely interested in my mask and camera tether).

What thoughts scamper thru the brain when face-to-face with such magnificence? Similar thoughts to when a moose starts swimming toward you: “oh dang, this is freakin awesome, and I’m pretty sure it’s gonna hurt when she decides not to like me.”

One second later he was nibbling on the camera tether.

One second later he was nibbling on the camera tether.

With such wonders come the tourist throngs and their shocking density to basic consideration.  I realize that we are a part of this group.  But hell, even some locals behave with complete abandon.  Kurt and I try our damnedest not to trample or molest or offend, and grow ulcers watching others’ insolence.  Am I my brother’s keeper in a foreign land?

With great privilege witnessing the world’s treasures comes the burden of seeing them destroyed, either directly with every coral-crushing footstep, or second-handedly (bear with me here) as fertilizer seeps into the sea causing blooms of invasive weeds which manufacture an amino acid that causes a latent herpes in the sea turtles eating it to develop debilitating tumors.  Damn. We’re fucking everything up, and it is most visible in these most precious of places.  It causes me to wonder what of my own presence is contributing to it.  And then, as an offset to my damage, the need to actually DO something about it.

It’s easier to just be utterly ignorant and pet some sea turtles.


For the uber-curious, there are more images in the gallery: and an article at National Geographic concerning turtle herpes: