Turtle Tailing

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Monday, August 4, 2008

My diving mask contains the line between two worlds: a thin skin of water dividing the rocks and trees above, warm rain pattering on my head; below, a hawksbill turtle, paddling serenely in the coral gardens.
From the surface one would never know he is here, this amazing creature with four snorkellers trailing after him in wonder. For all the visitors here in Pulau Weh, swimming with a turtle is one of the most highly prized experiences. Beginner's luck for me: this is my first time out.
The turtle, calm as can be, paddles slowly up to the surface, breaking it slightly for a quick gulp of air. Then he glides back down again among the otherworldly formations of this underwater garden-a coral reef in a multitude of shapes, from flat plates like satellite dishes to elegant fans, lumpy potatoes and round vegetable brains--all home to scores of different kinds of fish. Michele, from Switzerland, points out a trumpet fish-bright yellow, long, skinny, with a nose, obviously, like a trumpet. "What a funny creature!" he exclaims through his mask in his French accent.
It's busier than Medan at rush hour--school upon school of fish swimming this way and that, somehow miraculously not crashing into each other: tiny round fluorescent blue fish, big flat black fish, large fluorescent blue and green fish, transparent white fish with silver gleams on their backs, and, my favourite, the bright purple and yellow parrot fish with the comical bird-like faces, zooming around the coral like becaks. The amount of colour is astounding, like swimming in a massive aquarium, except this one has no walls.
Michele has good eyesight and he's a gentleman too, pointing out all the creatures and explaining what they are-a pufferfish not puffed up because it's not scared of anything, white with dark spots and big puppy dog eyes. He looks like a tiny seal. A massive school of barracuda, sharp and swift as knives, pass by so close I can almost touch them.

The turtle, patterns on its shell mottled by green marine growth, surveys us coolly, unconcerned with his underwater paparazzi. "I'm going to play with this guy a while," Andy from Quebec says, and dives down deep to get another photo as the turtle snacks on coral on the sea bed.

The star of our undersea show soon tires of snacking among the rocks and rises to the surface, navigating the current expertly, at one with the world. In my mind, I am taking my own photos, quite unbelieving at what I am seeing. Am I really in a tropical coral garden swimming with a sea turtle? I could pinch myself.

The turtle, however, couldn't care less. What's all the fuss about? Why we are staring at him and following him? Just another day with a load of ogling yahoos. He tests a bit of rock with his flipper, decides it's not up to standard as a snack, and off he goes. 

Turtles, it turns out, have egos too. He circles around to make sure Andy has a better picture, then comes towards me too, so close I can reach out and touch him, but my instincts tell me to leave him alone. The unwritten law is never touch the wildlife. It's okay, though, if it touches you. (Not so good if you don't actually want it to touch you, however. My mind goes back to Abdul the randy orangutan who groped me on the jungle path, then Johnny in the becak, another form of wildlife in his own way.)
Off the turtle goes again, sailing between tall apartment buildings of coral, above the mad city traffic of fluorescent fish. I accidentally follow him into an outcrop of rocks so we cannot go any further, and find myself hovering above a clownfish swimming within a waving purple sea anemone. It's a real Finding Nemo fish, more brilliant than its cartoon facsimile, frantic that this massive creature (me) is hovering over him, and trying to scare me away from the eggs. I leave him in peace and back away, allow the turtle to escape out into the coral bed once more.

Exhilarated after following our new friend for over half an hour, we pause and watch the turtle disappear beyond the point. We paddle to the coral beach on Rubiah Island to look at Andy's footage and have a hot cup of tea at the little restaurant here, out of the rain that has descended on us this afternoon. Two Australians, Baz and Bev, give us a cup of tea, and myself a raincoat to keep warm. We ooh and ahh over  the footage, then hit the footpath back to the front of Pulau Rubiah to snorkel back to Pulau Weh. The deeper we go, the more aquamarine the water becomes. The brilliance of yellow snorkelling gear against it is so sharp it seems surreal.
In the shallows of the bay, I find an exuisitely flawless shell--long, conical, cream coloured, on its surface a swirl of cinnamon brown speckles. It is heavy in my hand, still home to a living creature. Like the turtle, another perfect specimen of nature's creation.
Today I feel like a newborn seeing the world for the first time. Like Indonesians who have never seen snow, I have never seen a tropical ocean like this before. I am so thankful to Indonesia for revealing her wonders of nature to me. Yet it never fails to surprise me how many of my students in Medan are unaware of all the beauty that lies so near them in the city. It is my hope that all Indonesian people know what treasures exist in their own homeland, and, despite what might be considered extreme poverty in the eyes of western society, protect what is most precious in the world, so precious it is beyond price.
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