Friday, July 16, 2010

Bumfuzzled by a Huge Sea Turtle...

One of the biggest thrills ever in my short scuba career occurred a couple days into my last diving trip. Staying low, practically crawling along the sea floor we round a big boulder and the first thing I see is a big old sea turtle. At the first moment of that encounter my camera was still hanging off my right shoulder by the strap high above my right bicep. I keep it up there where it tends to float above my head next to my ear when I want to have full use of both hands.

The turtle was not in the least troubled by our presence and just continued to mosey along, floating and paddling away from us staying just above the sea floor. I scrambled to retrieve my camera to record, what to me, was a very momentous event.

Super charged excitement from the unexpected sighting of this giant turtle in its natural habitat caused me to nervously fumble in getting the camera back down my arm and the fumbling continued in trying to turn it on. I was bumfuzzled, like a hunter with buck fever staring down the barrel of his rifle at an amazingly antlered deer.

Finally, I got the camera on and commenced to take several stills before changing to video mode. I was struck by the size of the animal. From shell front to back it was well over three feet long, and I noticed that the trailing edge of the carapace was cracked and worn, as if it had seen a few seasons. I don’t think it is a youngster, but not being a sea turtle expert I can’t know for sure.

Doing a little internet research I am fairly certain that this particular turtle is a hawksbill. And from the size it appears to be a mature specimen since everything I read states that they grow three to four feet long, exactly the size of MY turtle. It also matches up well with the hawksbill photos I found. What's more, watching the video, if you look closely you’ll see it munching on some kind of small sponge, and according to the sources I found the hawksbill is one of the only sea turtles that eat sponges, which tend to be toxic to most other creatures.

For the most part I kept my distance from the beautiful creature. I’ve seen videos of divers hanging on for a ride by clinging to the shells of swimming sea turtles, but that seems wrong to me. When it comes to wildlife I’d rather observe and disturb them as little as possible.

I motion to Don to have him approach a little closer, to position himself directly across from me on the other side of the turtle to serve as a contextual back drop. I did so after realizing that there is no context in the shot, no way to gauge the turtle’s dimensions.

Don didn’t understand what I wanted and just hung warily back. I noticed with surprise that he’d pulled his knife from his leg scabbard and was brandishing it at the ready. He told me later that not knowing how aggressive sea turtles are, and with this one being so large with such a big scary beak, he said if it came after me he intended to poke it in a rear leg to distract it.

As for me, I wasn’t worried—I’ve watched enough Discovery Channel to know they aren’t aggressive; although, with a head the size of a medium sized dog along with those menacing jaws and big hawk's beak, I too admit being wary with being so close to the biting end of it.

A fascinating feature of the scene playing out in front of the camera in my hands was observing the retinue of fish following the huge turtle around. I tried to figure out the reason they hovered near it, often under it in fact, and came up with an answer—eating opportunities. When the hawksbill stopped to munch on the little brownish-green sponges, the attendant fish waited for any cast off morsel to become available and would immediately dart over to suck it down their greedy little gullets.

But that wasn’t the only opportunity available to these opportunistic turtle fishes; they also patrolled the back end of their turtle-buddy waiting for whatever dropped out of that end as well. In fact, the presence of these fish is the only way to get an idea of the turtle’s size in the video—the two large colorful fish flitting about the turtle in the clip, I believe they are a type of wrasse, are over 9 inches long.

Knowing the local penchant of folks around here of eating pretty much anything that swims, walks or flies, I wondered how this particular large and apparently aged sea turtle had managed to escape the cooking pot. Having learned a hard lesson when I made the mistake of revealing the location of a pristine underwater cave in a post several years ago that resulted in its ruination, I will not divulge the location of where we spotted the turtle.

Having declared my intention to try and protect this particular turtle, now that I’ve learned a little more about the hawksbill I have a theory as to how it has survived. According to my cursory research, hawksbill meat can be made quite toxic due to the poisonous nature of what it eats. Also, they tend to stay deeply submerged for most of their lives, something that should also help preserve their lives; and since they eat sponges they probably aren’t tempted to go for what most fishermen would bait their hooks with. And finally, we found the turtle in tepid water at the bottom of a relatively shallow rocky lagoon, a place without many fish, at least not compared to a lot of other nearby places; so there is no reason for anyone to visit such a place.

Taking all that into account, perhaps that is how it has survived; or, maybe the locals didn’t eat it because it’s protected. That would be the ideal scenario, and I would love it to be so, but, I just can’t make myself believe it. Then again, who knows?
Thing is, people break the rules all the time for all sorts of reasons, and one of the most common of these excuses is poverty. On that note, "developing nations" like to argue that saving the environment is a "luxury" ONLY applicable to the First World. I don't buy that at all. Shouldn't it be common sense that you don't crap where you live? Fishing with dynamite or cyanide is a great example of "crapping where you live," something that still happens. Another more literal example can be smelled at any time of day walking the beach front of Sabang; if THAT isn't the smell of people crapping where they live then nothing is...


malor said...

Nice shot, Phil. Thanks for sharing. I agree with the last paragraph. it is not a luxury but a necessity to protect the environment. It is frustrating to make people understand the importance of it.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yes Malor, there are plenty of laws and declarations here designed and intended to protect and preserve but almost no enforcement.

Ed said...

I'm becoming an armchair scuba diver by reading your blog. I kind of like it.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Nothing wrong with being a little vicarious.

Beau said...

This was really nice... my son enjoyed the video too! I learned to dive in Batangas over 25 years ago, but only went a half-dozen times.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Hi Beau. Nice to hear from you. Gratified you and yours enjoyed the vid and that it brought back memories of your time here. I'm curious, did you ever have the opportunity to observe any sea turtles during your Batangas diving? I have several dive buddies who have hundreds of dives between them and never got the chance. I'm realizing now how rare it was indeed.

Beau said...

Hi Phil- No... I never saw one, but always wanted to. I imagine it is a rare experience. I did see many barracuda however :)

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ah, barracuda! I MUST experience them. On my list.