Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, March 17, 1997

Of turtles, Ireland and
St. Patrick’s Days past

WHEN I was a little girl, I was crazy about St. Patrick's Day. For weeks in March, I would cut shamrock shapes out of bright green construction paper, make green lapel decorations for my family members and agonize over what green outfit to wear to school on THE day.

Since I have no Irish heritage that I know of, and at that time had never met anyone from Ireland, this enthusiasm seems a little odd. But there was a good reason for this early awe of the Irish: I love the color green.

Anyone who visits my sailboat knows this immediately. It's trimmed in green from mast top to waterline. Inside are green cushions, green towels and green blankets. On the transom is a picture of the boat's logo, a green sea turtle above the animal's Hawaiian name, HONU.

The irony here is that green sea turtles aren't actually green, although if you look carefully, you can see a shade of olive among the black, brown and gold colors of their lovely mottled shell.

It's from the color of their body fat, once prized for soup, that these reptiles get their 'Irish' name.

I know about such soup from personal experience. Back in the early '70s, before I knew better, I let a traveling companion talk me into ordering a bowl of turtle soup in Mexico. When it came, bearing a greenish tinge, my small-town tastes balked and I refused to eat it.

Now I'm not sure which was worse: That I was willing to waste a meal made from a turtle killed specifically for food or that my friend went ahead and ate it.

The incident sticks in my mind, especially when I hear something like, "But I had no idea I wasn't supposed to stand on the coral." However innocent, the damage is already done.

Another vivid green memory I have from the early '70s is crossing the Irish Sea. After months of hitchhiking through Europe, I finally made it to the Liverpool ferry headed for Dublin. I stood by the rail nearly the entire passage, watching the dark green water of the Irish Sea swirl around the boat.

I didn't know it then, but the greenish color of seawater there, and in other cold-water places, comes from the abundant growth of tiny green plants called phytoplankton. This floating marine garden is the basis of the all-important food chain that fuels so much life in the ocean.

Clear warm waters, such as those surrounding Hawaii, are relatively empty of such plants. Here coral reefs are the backbones of marine life.

But back to Ireland.

After arriving in Dublin, I headed south to the seaside town of Wicklow where I met two friendly young women who invited me to go to the beach with them.

When we got to the beach park, the women opened the trunk of their car, pulled out their very conservative swimsuits and then shocked me silly by stripping naked.

They weren't naked long because they immediately put their suits on. But still.

I looked around.

Everyone was doing the same, changing out in the open, near their cars. I shrugged, peeled and donned my suit.

After a wonderful day of exploring the beach and swimming in that cool, green water, we went back to the car and repeated our exposure in reverse.

No one gave us so much as a glance.

Now, here at home, when I see swimmers struggling to change clothes underneath bulky beach towels, I remember those Wicklow folks and their unusual combination of modesty and practicality.

Today the color green reminds me of sea turtles, sailboats and fertile seas.

It also keeps vivid my memories of early adventures and friendly people in Ireland.

And I love it more than ever.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at honu@aloha.net.

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