Saturday, May 16, 2009

Another First

Written at Pulau Wagmag, Southern Raja Ampat, Indonesia

It was another first. In the last 2 1/2 years cruising on DK we have had a full cornucopia of adventures. But every so often something brand new and randomly exciting happens. Today was one of those days.

But first a little background...Anchored at the northern Raja Ampat island of Wayag, almost everyday was about exploration. The island massif and surrounding mushroom-shaped rocks surfacing from the sea are equally dramatic and beautiful. Sandy beaches line the shores of the reef-encircled small bays and lagoons and the channels are alive with thick nutrient-rich currents that support the tremendous amount of life that exists here. This small area in West Papua, Indonesia, is considered to have the greatest coral reef biodiversity of its size in the world. Even though the secret is out and more and more tourists venture here, mostly on live-aboard dive boats, the reality is that Raja Ampat is still seldom visited and only a select few actually spend the money and time to journey to these islands.

There has been a rather sad downside to this gem of a region. Even though we have been at least 40-120 miles away from any significantly sized city, like Sorong, we have seen more trash in the water and on every beach we have visited than anywhere we been in the Pacific Ocean. Slicks of plastic, foam, steel balls, flip-flops, and all sizes of wood and bamboo are pushed and pulled by the strong currents. Every beach we have walked on is practically covered with rubbish and when we do put our fishing lures out in the open water trying our luck for Spanish mackerel or tuna, we mostly just catch plastic. It's been a full time job just pulling in our lures to remove the pieces of trash we hook, not to mention keeping a sharp lookout that DK doesn't ram into a huge log or scary steel whatever. Some locals say the trash is from the live-aboard dive boats and others have told us they think it is the huge fishing or container ships that are heading to Sorong but don't want to pay to have their trash brought on shore, so these boats just dump it before getting close to the harbor. This is all possible; we really don't know where it comes from or why it is so bad. The happy side to this reality is that it sounds like most of the time there hasn't been this problem with trash, but, unfortunately, while we were visiting trash everywhere was our reality.

Back to the present...Nicole and I took off in Super Dinghy for an around the islands exploration tour in an attempt to find a "shady" beach. Did I mention it is really really hot here at the equator? Zigging and zagging through the coral-studded channels of the inner lagoons we soon found ourselves on the outer reef skimming along the top of a shallow hard coral reef. "There's another turtle," I pointed out, one of probably half a dozen we had already seen that day. But as we got closer we could tell something wasn't right. The turtle was clearly struggling and kept surfacing in the same spot. We slowly approached and could finally see the problem. The turtle was trapped in an old fishing net with it bound tightly around 3 of the turtle's flippers and completely around it's neck. Our hearts dropped. This is what you read about; the thousands of old fishing nets and plastic 6-pack rings that float around aimlessly in the oceans entangling anything that gets in their way. But this situation was our first time actually observing this sad reality.

But now wasn't the time to be sad and introspective. It was time to act. 'Bummer', Nic and I thought. No knife. No mask. And we were miles away from DreamKeeper. I looked at the turtle coming up for air and immediately attempting to dive and swim away unsuccessfully. It was scared and it was really stuck. Then I remembered we "did" have a knife with us. A fishing knife I left yesterday under the dingy seat when I was out hunting for lobster. We almost never keep a knife in the dingy, well we didn't, but we all know now that will change.

I jumped in with the knife and struggled to hold onto the turtle. It was a green sea turtle, fairly large and heavy, possibly 2 1/2 feet in diameter and weighing at least 300 pounds or more. It didn't want anything to do with me. It struggled and kept diving down while I attempted to find some purchase with my bare-feet on the hard coral that I could just barely touch beneath me. I finally got a good hold on the turtle's shell and managed to cut a few pieces of the net off. Then the turtle slipped away again and down it went. My fear was that I would cut only part of the net away and the turtle would take off with some of it still wrapped tightly around it's flippers or neck only t0 be killed by it at a later date.

Nicole was circling in the dingy yelling for me to be careful and not to hurt the turtle or let it get away. She was clearly rattled and was just trying to voice her concerns, but for me, as she well knows, it was better to just tune her out and focus on the situation.

Finally I managed to pull the turtle close to me again and this time I held on tightly to it's shell while doing my best not to drag my "white-man" bare-feet all over the sharp coral my toes were clinging too. Thankfully the turtle was tiring and I was committed this time. I carefully slipped the blade between skin and net and slowly freed each limb. I was nervous about the neck, but as I worked the turtle seemed to relax a bit and eventually I cut the last of its bonds. I released my firm grip and the turtle finned fiercely, dove deep, and was gone. It all happened in only a few minutes.

I bobbed in the water and appreciated the moment.

The trash we had been seeing finally had a more real connection. Of course the net probably wasn't just thrown overboard by a live-aboard dive boat or container ship coming into Sorong, but it was "trash". An old fishing net lost at sea wrapping up everything in its path until it becomes caught on a coral reef, beach, or boat prop. In this case it snagged a turtle.

For whatever reason we came upon this situation, it was a first for us, and thankfully, had a happy ending.


SMB tech geeks said...

Your are our hero! Well done on your perseverance in saving the turtle. We tried to save a swan last year that had swallowed fishing line, but sadly our story didn't have such a happy ending. Keep up the good work ;0)

Skip said...

You guys are our heros! What a great story, and we're glad it had a happy ending. The turtle nation thanks you!

Editor said...

You guys are living the life. Gia just sent me the link to this story and site. What an adventures. Bet you found some good uncrowded surf too. That's what I'm dying to hear about. ;-)

Safe travels,