One Lucky Turtle
by John Setchell

One Lucky Turtle - A true story

On an Island in the Yasawa Island group of Fiji is a Padi dive centre, Jane and I learned to Dive there last year and it is as though the time since then was mostly spent waiting to return. We love it here in the islands of Fiji and the Fijians are such friendly and welcoming people, in the outer islands they mostly live in thatch huts amongst the coconut palms, Fijian children will ask you to take a photograph of them and at church you can hear the most beautiful singing, most are poor by our standards but richer in so many other ways. We have made good friends here; at the dive shop I am one of the crew. Charles, a Canadian artist is our neighbour and Lance Millar, the owner of the dive shop who taught us to dive. As I write I am looking out to sea with joy in my heart. I am on holiday in paradise with my wife Jane who is pregnant with our first child, last week I completed my Dive Master course and I have been scuba diving nearly every day for the past six weeks.

Thursday morning I was at the dive shop helping prepare for the morning dive when a diver arrived from a nearby resort and asked if the big turtle in the red boat was waiting to be tagged. I walked up the beach with the diver a short way to a wooden fishing boat that was past the high tide mark in the bushes, in it was the largest and most beautiful turtle that I have ever seen, he was on his back, tears streaming from his eyes as he gasped for breath, from the turtles size I guessed him to be well over one hundred years old. It was evident that this was no conservation effort and that he was destined for the cooking pot unless we could save him. I judged that it would take at least four men to lift him so we rushed back to the dive shop, Lance was on the mainland and Mannie, who was my PADI Instructor this year, would not come as he said that it would upset him too much. Anto who is a dive master came with me and when she climbed into the boat to stroke the turtle, she tried and comfort him and to complement him on what a beautiful turtle he was, it was enough to make anybody cry. At that moment Jane came along the beach, I cringed when Anto called her over to see, Jane stood quietly as she said a prayer for the big turtle.

The rest of Thursday was spent making enquiries and we found out that the turtle had been caught on Monday and was waiting to attend a wedding celebration on the following Tuesday as the main dish. Apparently turtles are quite easy to catch as they come up for air and are not affraid of humans. I spent the day in a dilemma as to what to do; run the risk of being clubbed for “stealing” the turtle, we wondered if they might sell it to us, could I convince the turtles captors to at least limit the turtles suffering until it was time to kill it? We knew that it was wrong to make this poor noble beast suffer, but was it their cultural right to eat turtle? Did they have a permit to kill this turtle? Charles pointed out it was these peoples only fault with regards the environment, they had no cars nor factories belching out pollution, they do not understand about endangered animals and “Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone!” I parried with the story of, “The good Samaritan”!
So without being judgemental and too philosophical about it we agreed that the best thing to do was to release the turtle as quietly as possible after nightfall. Charles and Mannie agreed to help even though it might make staying on the island difficult for them if we were caught. Throughout the day various plots were hatched, we found out later that word had spread and that a group of tourists on the island had a similar plan. However, as evening approached we were told that the turtle had been released; we soon found out that this was not true and that it had been moved to a more secure place. We resigned ourselves to feeling sorry for the un lucky turtle.

Lance arrived back on the Island the next afternoon, he was exasperated to hear about the turtle and told us that it was in fact not legal. A permit exists for special occasions such as a chief’s funeral, but Lance had seen too many turtles killed to know that in the Islands they do not worry too much about the paperwork. On the Island only two weeks ago another turtle perished at a church fund raiser. Last night another turtle was offered at a 21st birthday party! It was maybe that turtle, which was literally offered on a plate to Lance that was the last straw. Lance made a stand this Sunday morning and talked to the elders, asking them strongly to let the turtle go. The talks went well and on Tuesday donated pork will be eaten in the turtles place.

We lifted the big turtle into a wheel barrow with some effort and took him to the sea not knowing what to expect, he must have thought that his end was near, he must have been surprised to see the Ocean rather than a fire at the end of his upside down journey. I had wondered if it was too late, at least I expected the turtle to need rest and recovery after his week long ordeal. The turtle saw the water in front of him and realising that he was no longer on his back, must have thought it was a once in a life time opportunity that he could not miss, he struggled immediately into the water. It surprised me that many of the people who were happy to eat this beautiful turtle now celebrated his release, he was tired and swam slowly on the surface for a long way with myself and Lance as his companions walking behind him, but he did not look back, we wished him the best of luck.

This was the tale of one lucky turtle and one small island… sadly many more turtles on many more islands are not so lucky each and every week. The solution I propose is not a boycott of this beautiful place, on the contrary the more turtle loving people that visit the better. But if you visit these Islands please tell the people you meet that you love turtle, definitely not to eat, but to see as a beautiful living creature.

I wrote this Turle story some years ago, It was published on the PADI website for quite a while. I never did receive a reply from the Fijian Government to any of my letters but a law was made in April 2004 banning the capture of Turtles in Fiji. It still happens in the outer islands but I think there is some awareness now. I like to think that this story and the E-mail campaign that was attached to it had a small part in bringing about that change.
Lance and I remain friends, he has moved the dive shop to the resort he has built called the Nanuya Island Resort. Fiji and the Yasawas remain my favourite holiday destination and place to dive. Check out the holidays MadMermaids have to offer in Fiji and I might see you there and take you diving. With any luck you might see a big turtle and wonder if he was the one you once read about!
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