Sun, 7 Jul 2024

— Leatherback Turtle.

Please check out these blog postings every few days: I’m part way through my series of stories about each of the turtles I’m photographing, in parallel with my Kickstarter Fundraising Campaign to finish my upcoming book — I’m hoping to reach my goal in the next two weeks —  thanks in advance!

The Arafura Sea… the Banda Sea… the Molucca Islands… I remember, as a child, playing ‘explorers’ with my dad, tracing our fingers over those dream-inducing names on the pages of our over-sized family atlas. Never in my wildest imaginings could I have foreseen that someday I would really be there. Or even less so that in that precise location on the Globe — some 60 years after doodling with long-gone dad — I would experience an encounter akin to meeting an enraged Tyranosaurus rex!

But that’s exactly what happened! We had been searching for days for an open-ocean encounter with the [for me] mythical Leatherback turtles. Where the Arafura and Banda Seas meet are some deep undersea canyons that nurture an abundance of giant sea-tomato jellyfish, favorite food to lure the giant turtles.

Photo of Tui: courtesy of  ©Franco Banfi <www.banfi.ch>

To see a leatherback underwater is quite an iffy undertaking. After all, they shun land and have recently been recorded diving to a mind-blowing depth of over 4,400 feet. Zigzagging in a small open boat, a seasoned turtle-spotter standing on the bow, sightings were fleeting, and can be hours or days apart. 

Just occasionally, a dark, massive head-and-shoulders broke the surface for air. No time to waste. A helter-skelter tizzy of flailing flippers and camera housings (there were just three of us) followed at the words, “Go, go, go!” 

If we were lucky, we’d glimpse a majestic figure already far below, descending gracefully amongst stabbing sunbeams towards the depth whence she’d come. We dove down as far as we could, and, with more luck, sometimes managed to prolong the encounter by a minute or two if one of us succeeded in getting below her, often engendering a cautious circle on her part, for a better look at such an alien creature as a submarine human

Then one calm day, everything went differently, and it all happened incredibly fast. As I spied the turtle, still at the surface and a good 50 yards away, she turned to face me, then started swimming towards me with deep flipper strokes, accelerating fast. Spellbound and hanging still, I started shooting, her dark form reflecting off the smooth sea surface.

In no time she was upon me, snapping her serrated jaws in a very clear message:
“Get out of here!” 

Of course, nobody can outswim an enraged turtle coming at full tilt, so I held my ground and made sure that it was the round glass dome of my camera housing that met her nose, her jaws still wide. 

Unfazed, she instantly changed tactics, spinning her entire body with a great big swish of her back fins, twisting and shooting up vertically inches from my face. Her speed and swimming power was such that well over half of her body cleared the water, aiming to crash her ridged carapace on my head. Literally, this turtle had BREACHED on to me, with intent to kill!

I instinctively ducked down, and the water above me absorbed the impact, but this only angered her more. She circled, steel jaws agape and eyes bloodshot, for a second go. This time I was determined to photograph the unbelievable performance, so rather than diving out of the way I tried to follow her launch with my camera. But I was nowhere near quick enough to capture the moment. All I got for my effort was a bruised shoulder and a whiplashed neck!


By now, our second skiff had approached, and for a few minutes there were five snorkelers in the water. Interestingly, the one person she decided to chase most vigorously was the one trying to swim away from her — which of course is isimply not possible. She turned on the speed and snapped at his fins as he thrashed as hard as he could to keep at least some flexible rubber between his feet and those scything jaws.

Deciding to not add any more stress to this poor animal’s day, we all quickly scrambled back into our respective two boats, but before we could retrieve our ladders and make a get-away, she still managed to ram each boat with all her might! 

Three days after this epic experience, another miracle began to unfold: the hatching of the previous arribada.  Suddenly, the tidy rows of well protected nests in the incubation corrals, each covered with a wire mesh cage to keep out crabs, plus a fine muslin to prevent flies laying eggs into the nests, began to burst with life. Crawling like frantic, jet-black beetles and not much bigger than a large coin, the babies were collected from each nest, counted and released onto the beach at the break of day so they could crawl naturally down to the wave-wash.  Every nest was then excavated to find surviving stragglers, tally both hatched and unhatched eggs, and every detail entered into a massive database.

It was hard to imagine what went on in such an ancient reptilian brain to make this turtle see red, literally. Where had she come from, what had she seen? Satellite tracking records show that Leatherbacks regularly crossed the entire Pacific Ocean basin, from Indonesia to Oregon, presumably in search of the richest jellyfish concentrations. What would she have experienced at the hands of high seas fisheries? Or had she escaped a local harpooner here earlier in her life? Sadly, these turtles are still the subject of traditional hunting rights by several villages in this area, despite the fact that the Pacific Ocean leatherbacks population has suffered over 90% decline in just the last three decades. 

The sobering reality is that it is certainly not the Moluccan islanders’ fault that the Pacific leatherbacks are going extinct, but it will be their responsibility when this particular population is wiped out too. The only hope lies in convincing the expert harpooners — like the fantastic turtle-spotter who guided us — that, if enough tourists like me come to swim with their turtles, these enigmatic beasts will become more valuable to them alive than dead.

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As you can imagine, despite being very frugal in my travels, getting all the images for a complete ‘Sea Turtles of the World’ book is very costly. 

Please check out my Kickstarter Fundraising Campaign, especially the incentive gift rewards I’m offering… Plus many more photos and details. 

— I’m almost there, but it’s all-or-nothing — 

And remember to return to this blog site for more lively stories of individual turtle encounters in the days to come…

Thank You for your support!