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Turtle Travel Medicine: Oahu Sea Turtle Serendipity
In 2011, I went to great lengths to see my first sea turtles. By the time we made it to our first turtle, we had experienced enough adventures and misadventures to fill two hubs on travel mishaps.
This experience overlaps with part two, but is not part of that series (though there is a third hub), but rather a closer look at our amazing luck and it's significance.
I had the opportunity to fly for free through my husband's job, was not working due to illness, had a friend to stay with in Oahu, and was obsessed with the idea of seeing a sea turtle.
After what we went through to get there, it was amazing that we made it (after giving up and finding that we couldn't get home, either, since we live next to Glacier National Park, which can be harder than Hawaii to fly to in the summer).
I had researched where to go to see turtles, and the kids and I were very excited to rent a car and make it happen. Unfortunately, when we finally made it, I was too sick to rent a car (I was over a year into Lyme disease, but still two years away from an accurate diagnosis).
So, for our first (car-less) day, we went down to Waikiki to at least enjoy the beach.
Sea Turtle Serendipity
Walking across a wall to get from one beach to another, we stopped to look at something far off in the waves. Then came our first bit of magic.
Happily, what we saw in the waves, which initially didn’t really look like anything, turned out to be something. We stood and stared, joking that maybe it was a sea turtles’ head. We were a little bit in the way of other walkers, but we stood for quite a while. Just in case.
It may sound far-fetched, but a woman came up to us and tapped me on the shoulder. By then, there were several other sets of people along the walk way looking at nothing in particular, other than the waves and the amazing skyline. This wonderful woman had walked past a lot of people to get to us. She leaned in kindly and said, “I just thought you would like to know that there are sea turtles over by that wall.”
I really couldn’t form words. I was trying, but as I stared at her, my kids asked her in amazement how she knew that. They told her we came from Montana to find them. She looked touched, and said, “I don’t know. I just saw you over here and thought I should tell you.”
This may not be as incredible to read as it was to experience, but we would have been visible as only mere specs from where she’d been standing on the wall. She had walked easily an eighth of a mile past numerous other tourists to tell us this.
On later trips, I understood this better.
It’s a magical little spot and as you stand there, you see certain people you know are about to be drawn in, and you want to tell them, because you can tell they want to know.
You watch people find this spot and become overwhelmed. Some people just look for a minute and move on, but for others, it’s something entirely different. Since then, I've seen people sobbing on that wall, and others sending glances of quiet, respectful empathy. It's a really amazing space that only certain people really occupy and appreciate when they are in it.
I'm not accustomed to this kind of experience in a developed spot, or anywhere near (let alone surrounded by) concrete and people. But the chance for this proximity to the turtles in such an unexpected setting was such a gift. Even for a biologist from the Rocky Mountains, accustomed to to being surrounded by critters people from around the world travel to catch a glimpse of.
This experience, if I remember right, started me on my first personal blog (written during illness with corresponding differences in my writing), Turtle Medicine: Stories of a CFIDS/Lyme Disease Mom. My memory now seems to differ on a few details compared to this post from 2011, but Lyme disease takes a toll on memory.
The Turtle Wall
When we reached the wall there were two sea turtles rolling in the waves. As we found a good spot they drew closer and closer to the part of the wall where we stood. Most of the onlookers thinned out and were replaced by new ones. More turtles rolled in with the waves, and some of them came to eat plants off the wall beside us.
In researching where to go, I’d read up on laws and recommendations for ethically viewing turtles. As a biologist, it’s pretty hard to enjoy wildlife if I’m not doing it right, or if people around me aren’t. As amazed as I was to be seeing them our first day, I was also amazed that our first view had given us this magical close up view, without having to worry about getting too close or seeing past the crowds.
My kids were enthralled for the first half hour, and humored me for another half hour after that. Since the turtles weren’t leaving, my kids knew I wasn’t leaving either and asked to play. Fortunately, the side of the wall we were standing on had sand and beach to play on where they could be beside me while I watched the turtles on the other side. We probably stayed for close to three hours.
Sea Turtle Conservation on Facebook
Sea Turtle Ethics, Laws, and Conservation Groups
As a biologist, I tend to plug conservation issues whenever I get an even remotely applicable opening to do so. This is certainly just such an opening.
I noted earlier that folks were viewing the turtles ethically, and this was the case for most of our visit. There were only a couple of deviations by snorkelers, but none of them were aware they were breaking any rules and all but one were very respectful of the information they were given from onlookers on the wall that did know. It was fantastic to hear the educated chorus of voices, local and non-local, tactfully but firmly sharing with those in the water.
Locations out of water on Oahu and other islands that are frequented by sea turtles are often manned with volunteers who educate visitors and protect the turtles. They do this with ropes around the turtles, informational signs, and their presence among onlookers.
Safe and Ethical Marine Mammal Viewing Guidelines
Observe from a distance, do not attempt to feed, ride, or touch (and marine mammal guidelines, see caption & NOAA link)
Marine mammal guidelines (see caption & NOAA link)
100 yards from Humpback whales
Marine mammal guidelines (see caption & NOAA link)
Do not Swim with Spinner dolphins (and marine mammals)
Over the Rainbow, Beside a Wall.....
I don't think that this wall is any big secret, but I don't think it's well-known, either. I've met locals that were very giving with their information about good spots, after long chatting about various things. I've gotten very detailed locations and timing information from folks that were not aware you could see them right between the crowds like that.
As locals, they would probably be less impressed with the spot, but having come with the aim of seeing them, never having seen one up close, and finding them in the midst of Waikiki crowds was so amazing.
I don't recall before then being so obsessed with seeing a specific animal (that I wasn't studying or being paid to survey or monitor). I won't say I thought that sea turtles would heal me, but I did feel that I HAD to see them.
I was going through some pretty horrific battles with my health, including some bazaar employment loopholes that several federal attorneys were in the process of working out. I was watching my health, career, and our savings dissolve. I had not formerly taken those things for granted, and used to be grateful for my job and life driving to work each morning (with even my beautiful morning drive being a point of gratitude).
Turtles did not restore any of these things to their former states. And they did not cure my Lyme disease or give me any messages about the true nature of my illness. But the hours by that wall did bring me to tears several times. My kids were used to me getting choked up at that point in my illness, and this particular case they both (then ages 5 and 11) understood.
We all remember the magic of that day every time we hear "Over the Rainbow" because it was playing in a beach-side restaurant and completely filled our senses when we finally walked away in exhausted awe.