Swimming with Sea Turtles

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Honu, wise and wonderful

Honu, wise and wonderful

There is just something about the Green Sea Turtle. Mystical, elusive, playful, wise, patient, coy, sedate, blissful, magical…somehow it’s impossible to quite pin down all the qualities that they possess. And their mere presence is somewhat capricious. Some people can go to Kauai and spend a week practically hunting for them and never see one, others are literally tripping over them as they enter the water each time. We are blessed to fall into the latter category and get to have some wonderful experiences with what the Hawaiian people call honu.

 

First of all, these beautiful creatures are listed as protected on the endangered species list, so they are not out of danger, but they are making a very good comeback. Unfortunately for them, many people find them delicious. They have a possible life span of 80 years, commonly reach lengths of 5 feet and weight of over 300 pounds. It is illegal to touch or harass these beautiful creatures.

Is this friend or foe?

Is this friend or foe?

On our first trip to Hawaii we were on the island of Kauai at Tunnels beach on the very north end, snorkeling around to the north side. It was turning into a beautiful little snorkel, a nice large ray, some good schools of fish, nice slanted afternoon sun streaming through some pretty clear water. Fairly idyllic, the usual Kauai snorkel! Out of the murky distance came gliding a large honu. We had done no research on the ocean life of Hawaii so we were not at all prepared for this creature! We exchanged those funny round-eyed looks you can only give each other through a dive mask and quickly turned back to the turtle. Now, my round eyed look was excitement. By the way Dan started trying to swim backwards in his fins I am forced to believe that his round eyes were a little more adrenaline induced. He admitted later that he did not know if honu were dangerous and he was going to err on the safe side! Did I mention they are 5 feet across? I did still find it kind of funny though.

Light streaming through on honu

Light streaming through on honu

This beautiful giant came right up to investigate us as we waited, carefully motionless to see what he would do. He swam around us then seemed to go about his business in the rocks and waters near us so we were able to observe him close up without bothering him. Oh, we were so careful thinking this was a rare sighting of a skittish sea creature! His sweet gentle face, deep, wise eyes and multi-shaded shell were beautiful in the rays of sun streaming down through the water. We held hands and floated with him for several minutes just enjoying the experience. Eventually he swam off and we popped our heads up to talk about it. The excitement of the encounter had us so giddy! When we looked back down, he had come back and was circling below us, so we watched again and soon he swam off in the same direction.   He repeated this a few times and I got the feeling we should follow him, so we did, at a respectful distance. He actually checked over his shoulder to watch us as we swam behind him, at first I thought we might be bothering him but if we fell behind he slowed and turned to look for us. I know, sounds crazy.

Where the honu are

Where the honu are

After a couple hundred yards we came to a large volcanic rock formation in the middle of a sandy bottom about 25 feet down.   On closer inspection we could see that there were about 8 turtles floating around or nestled in on that rock! He had led us back to their cleaning station. There they were, a couple of them actually in line for the helpful fish that were cleaning the shell and skin of the turtle at the head of the line. What a special treat. We have been going back to Kauai and diving and snorkeling for 14 years now and we have never seen this activity again. They were completely unconcerned with our presence, leaving the rock to swim around us when they needed to come up for air. They were swimming right past us, making eye contact through the mask, giving us a glimpse of ageless wisdom. They were not disturbed when we dove down to check out the feeding station close up at the rock and let us hang out with them for over an hour, until we got concerned about the long swim back to our entry point. We reluctantly left them there after carefully marking  our spot relative to the shore and the mountains, hoping to be able to find them later in the week. We did visit there nearly every day that week and were lucky to be able to hang out with them routinely. Often we were led there by one or more turtles swimming on the outskirts then showing us the way. Maybe they were showing us the way intentionally, maybe they were just headed that way when we saw them, either way it was helpful! As we talked to people in town and around the resort we heard over and over that they were looking for turtles and still hoping to have the opportunity to swim with them. Many were excited by our experience but when they learned how remote the site was they were reluctant to try and find it. When we went back the next year we were unable to locate that spot again either.

Follow me

Follow me

We began at that point to branch out and snorkel in other spots and found that nearly everywhere we went in the water we were greeted with a honu encounter. What a delight and an honor, I never fail to offer a mahalo for the opportunity and I never want to take for granted this extra special treat. Most of the time we end up swimming along with them, flowing on currents that they find, admiring their seemingly effortless strokes that propel them gracefully and powerfully forward.  They are not sleek acrobats like seals or dolphins.  They are heavy, unwieldy creatures for underwater maneuvers, but they still manage to be very graceful and can be quite swift as well.  It is very peaceful to swim with them, matching them stroke for stroke, letting them lead.  Sometimes they will nestle in to a still spot in a reef where they don’t need to fight current and they can just rest.  I read somewhere that they can stay down for hours resting that way.

Swim along with me

Swim along with me

Still we hear out and about that many people are frustrated by their inability to find them. As we listen more, we hear others commenting on their encounters and we begin to sense a theme. The frantic, goal oriented, “I have got to have a turtle encounter before I leave” mentality did not seem to be drawing these gentle giants in. The grateful, admiring, relaxed approach seemed to have people bumping into them left and right. Do they sense our anxiety? Our hunter mentality? Does that signal danger to them and keep them away? I have also talked to some people who are conflicted. They want to see the turtles because it would be an experience, so they look for them, but they are also afraid that they will see them because they just aren’t too comfortable with sea creatures the size of coffee tables. It seems like these kinds of people do not see the honu either. Do the honu sense the fear? That would certainly signal danger. We have now become so accustomed to them we are not surprised when we are sitting at the water line and we hear them come up to breathe at our feet in six inches of water. We are literally careful not to step on them! Unfortunately, I hold the same attraction for mosquitoes with not quite the same positive interaction. At least it isn’t jellyfish!

Up there?

Up there?

One of our most entertaining honu encounters was actually on Maui. We were snorkeling in a kind of rough surge around some volcanic rock and getting tossed about pretty good. We noticed a large turtle getting tossed around with us, only he would disappear in a rush of water and then reappear a little later in a big cloud of bubbles. We swam over to see what he was doing and found him munching happily on a green bed of seaweed right at the only inlet of a pool that was acting like a washing machine in the surge. As the wave went in, he would reach down and grab a mouthful. He would get knocked almost upside down and swept into the rocks forming a whirlpool with sand streaming from his mouth as he contentedly chewed slowly on the seaweed he had plucked on the run. They don’t really have a lot of facial expression, but I swear he looked like he had found his bliss! He would get tossed around in the bubbles and rough water for a couple rounds, finished his mouthful and then he lined up to come swooshing back out, grabbing another bite on the way through. He seemed to have no control of his exit, sideways, upside down, left or right, but he never missed the seaweed no matter how fast he shot past there. A couple times he ran right into Dan, but he let nothing deter him from enjoying his meal. A trait I can relate to and respect for sure.

This last time we were in Kauai I was picking shells on Tunnels Beach a little before sunset and a couple honu were feasting on the seaweed right at the water line a couple feet away. A man came strolling down the beach strumming his ukulele and stopped to serenade the honu for about a half an hour as they dined. I was lucky to be in the area and enjoyed the music and the spirit in which it was offered. Something about that just made me really, really happy.

Ah... Fresh Air

I hope that everyone will have the opportunity to hear a honu snort upon surfacing to breathe, and be moved to serenade them at sunset.

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