Hotel's turtles stir memories of isle friends
SINCE JANUARY, I worked as a turtle guardian on the North Shore. Some days, as many as nine adult turtles would haul out of the water there to rest on the beach, and I got to know them well.
There was Brutus, missing half a rear flipper likely from a shark bite; Squirt, the smallish teenager not quite mature; Dawn, who helped her species by carrying a time-depth recorder on her back; and unforgettable others.
Turtle researchers have tagged about 20 turtles in the area.
Of course, I had to quit my turtle job when I left for Tahiti to go sailing. And even with the excitement of that adventure, I missed my turtle friends.
Then, two miracles occurred. Gerard performed the first by fixing my numerous broken boat systems. He replaced alternators, fixed bilge pumps, installed new running lights. He put in a water maker, repaired two autopilots and mounted a sea water galley pump. Then off we went to explore the lagoon and test the gear.
That's when the second miracle occurred: I found nine of the most beautiful sea turtles I've ever seen: eight greens, or honu (honu means green sea turtle in Hawaiian and Tahitian both), and one hawksbill. I even got to pet a honu.
Yes, I was back in Tahaa at the Hibiscus Hotel where proprietors Leo, Lotta and their grown children have become famous for rescuing turtles from fishermen who've caught them to eat. Leo buys each turtle for $50, an amount apparently attractive enough to save a turtle's life.
Turtles here are legally protected, but with no enforcement the creatures are rare in the lagoons.
Leo's turtles were all about dinner plate size and lounged leisurely in a pen off the pier at the hotel front. We tied my sailboat, Honu, to a mooring provided by the hotel, and I swam ashore.
As I climbed onto the pier, Leo's son lifted a turtle from the water to show two guests just arriving from Papeete.
"I came for the weekend to teach my daughter conservation," the woman told me.
The three of us admired the docile turtle. It had a snow-white bottom shell and perfect sunburst scutes on its back. Not one scar, scratch or parasite marred this creature, so perfect it could have been a painting. Gently the little girl pet the turtle, already half asleep. The mom and I did the same.
"We have too many," Leo told me later, when I admired his collection. "Tomorrow I will tag and release them."
The next day, I was right there taking pictures as Leo attached a metal tag to each little turtle's flipper. He thrilled his hotel guests by letting them carry the turtles down the dock and setting them free.
He kept four. "I need some turtles to show," he said, smiling.
Indeed he does. Leo has devised a way to save sea turtles, raise awareness and support his business all at the same time.
Some might frown over this method of conservation, but it works, benefiting both turtles and people.
A close encounter with nine Tahitian turtles was a memorable experience for me.
Still, I miss my Brutus.