$50 saves a sea turtle at distant isle
Last week, I bought a sea turtle. It's not something I thought I would ever do, but after watching a young honu swim gracefully around its enclosure, I said to its keeper, "How much does one cost?"
"Five thousand Polynesian francs," the man said. This is just over $50 and seemed to me a bargain for a healthy green sea turtle. So I got out my wallet and bought one.
This unexpected purchase took place in Tahaa, a sparsely populated island that shares a lagoon with Raiatea, both of the Society Islands.
Craig and I had spent most of the day motoring our sailboat around Tahaa exploring its reefs and looking for protection from the howling wind.
The diving and snorkeling is reportedly excellent in this remote area, but on such a blustery day, we couldn't check it out for ourselves. Besides there being few safe places to anchor the boat, the wind created currents that clouded the usually clear turquoise water.
But that's sailing. We took what the ocean gave us, which on that day was an adventure in exploring rather than one of diving.
After about six hours of driving into the wind, we turned into a 2-mile-deep bay called Baie Haamene. But the cut of the bay and curve of the mountains there caused the wind to funnel through, and this place was even rougher.
Just as we were about to turn around and make a break for Raiatea, I spotted a sign ashore. "Foundation Hibiscus," it said.
"Wait, wait," I said to Craig. I hurried below deck and got out the cruising guide. Sure enough, by chance, we'd found a place I really wanted to visit. The Hibiscus Foundation rescues sea turtles.
Founded in 1992 by a family that owns a bayside hotel and restaurant called L'Hibiscus, the foundation buys turtles caught in local fishers' nets.
Mature rescued turtles are transferred to the remote Scilly and Bellinhausen Islands, also of the Society Islands. Like Hawaii's French Frigate Shoals, these and two other nearby atolls are important egg-laying grounds for the area's green turtles.
Smaller saved turtles are kept in pens beside the hotel's pier where they are fed, tagged and loved until they're healthy enough to go back to the sea.
Since 1992, hotel owners Leo, Lolita and their children have saved more than 1,200 turtles. You can read more about this admirable private effort at www.tahaa-tahiti.com or e-mail the family at hibiscus@tahaa-tahiti. com.
Sea turtles have been officially protected in French Polynesia since 1990, but they are still hunted, I am told. This came as no surprise. In the nine weeks I've been sailing here, I have seen only two turtles: one dinner-plate size in the lagoon of Bora Bora, the other in the pen at the Hibiscus Hotel.
"Do the fishermen give you the turtles they catch?" I asked Leo.
"Oh, no," he said. "We must buy the turtles from them."
And that's how I came to purchase a turtle. The next turtle guest at the Hotel Hibiscus will, figuratively speaking, have my name on it.
See the Columnists
section for some past articles.