To continue from where the last blog post (Fish Dinner and a Whale Story) left off, and to answer the question my sister, Zara, asked – yes, we did make it to the turtle pond later that day. We were a larger party than the morning’s fishing crew. Kim and Devon had returned from a spectacular snorkel on the wall of a nearby reef, made all the more wonderful by the excellent water clarity due to the calm weather. They joined, as did Regina, who had finished teaching for the day. That made seven of us, along with the fishing party. We were a merry bunch. After Anthea’s crew clambered aboard the local skiff, off we zoomed across the lagoon. Regina joked that she was playing tourist that day. After five years teaching at Susui Village, she had yet to make the short trip to the turtle pond, and there’s a saying that until you’ve made it there, you haven’t yet really been to Susui. It was a gloriously beautiful calm day with lots of sunshine and blue sky. It was also close to low tide, which necessitated skirting reef edges and at times coming quite close to some of the mushroom shaped limestone islets that Vanua Balavu is famous for. We passed numerous inviting small beaches, lined with coconut trees and absent of any human trace. The water was clear and varied in color from aquamarine to tourquoise; numerous small inlets appeared and disappeared, including a larger one called hidden lagoon, which Devon and Kim and explored by kayak earlier in the day. After about 15 minutes, the boat slowed as we approached a beach; the anchor was tossed out and enough rode let out to stop the boat just short of the dry sand. We hopped out and made our way along a barely discernable track through the jungly vegetation. We were instructed to be quiet so as not to scare away the shy turtles. After a few short minutes a saltwater pond appeared through the undergrowth. We crept closer slowly, squinting through the foliage in the hopes of spotting a surfacing turtle. Setoki spotted one, but overall we didn’t see much, so it was decided that we should try another approach path. Back we went to the launch. A short ride later we landed at another small beach – one that Devon and Kim had kayaked to earlier that day, in fact. From there we followed a more used track and accessed the pond from the other side.
Our efforts were well rewarded. Over the next 30 minutes we all saw several large turtles surface, take a few breaths and then submerge. There was something a bit timeless about this interlude. These were apparently quite old turtles (and their heads were certainly much larger than the – presumably younger – ones we often see in the open lagoon). They had been caught when young and then placed in the pond to mature into adulthood, but this practice had stopped many years (decades?) ago. It is unclear why there were placed there – perhaps as a food source during times of scarcity? I’m not sure. They are not harvested for food these days. And furthermore, our local friends seemed to express a bit of reverence towards these animals. They shared descriptions of the turtles they had heard which seemed to attest to their venerable age; for example some villagers describe seeing the turtles’ backs encrusted with clam shells while others remark on the thick algal growth that covers their shells. Something about this pond seemed to connect us with the past, to a different era and set of lifeways.
Another element of the setting that added to the ambiance was the bats – literally thousands of them, all roosting in several trees right across the pond in front of us. Fruit bats in the Pacific roost in large colonies. They are much larger than the average North American bat and they make a distinctive chattering, chirping sort of sound. They were aware of our presence, as indicated by their increased vocalizations and rustlings. Eventually, a large number of them took flight and soon the sky above our heads was thick with low flying bats. I’ve seen two or three such colonies this summer, but never one so large and so close as this. We watched spellbound, looking up at the flying bats and simultaneously trying to scan the pond’s surface for the next turtle visitation. Finally, after the requisite group selfie’s and photos, we returned to the boat, feeling most fortunate to have had this experience.
On the return trip to the anchorage Setoki sat cross legged in the bow, facing us. I’ll never forget the huge grin on his face and the carefree happiness that seemed to engulf him that day.
Postscript: We left Susui the next day. Setoki, Joe, Regina and other family members waved grandly on the beach as we left the anchorage. Thus began a three day passage back to Viti Levu, then 2.5 days of kiting for Devon at Musket Cove, which ended today, and tomorrow we shift to Vuda Pt. Marina for Wednesday’s scheduled haulout and placement in the hurricane pit – Anthea’s home for the next 10 months. It will take more than a week of labor to carefully put her to bed, before we fly to San Francisco August 15.
5 August 2019
Musket Cove, Malolo Island