I can’t help it, I find myself irresistibly drawn to large, quiet, and stately animals – whales, elk, elephants, and owls, for example – and my heart especially goes out to them when they have been injured by their large and not-so-quiet or stately global companions – us.
A couple of weeks ago, when I was visiting Mo’orea, a tiny volcanic island just eleven miles from Tahiti, I stumbled upon a sea tortoise rescue center. I was so awestruck by the residents that as I was peering at them from the bridge that crossed their lagoon, I actually dropped the key to my rental car into one of the pools. This resulted in my needing to find the clinic administrator to ask her to wade into the netted-off section of the lagoon to fish out my key.
Somewhere in there, I ended up in tears, in part from the embarrassment of nearly hitting a rehabilitating tortoise with my key, and in part from the sadness of witnessing these creatures’ injuries. I decided then and there that I needed to return to the clinic the next day to attend an informational session designed to present more about these impressive inhabitants that had so affected me.
The Sea Turtle Clinic is located on the grounds of Moorea’s Intercontinental Resort and Spa. The clinic itself is operated by a non-profit, called Te mana o te moana (which means “the spirit of the ocean” in Tahitian), dedicated to protecting French Polynesia’s marine life and educating the public about threats to it.
The non-profit was started in 2004, and with the financial support of the Ministry of the Environment and the infrastructural help of the Intercontinental Hotel, the clinic was started soon after. The resort, which happens to have a lagoon system connected to the open ocean, netted off a segment of their waterspace for the rescue center, which allows the tortoises to live in actual sea water while still being kept within a confined and protected area.
Over 500 tortoises have been through the clinic, and about half of them have survived to be released into the wild. When the animals come in, they have often been rescued by government employees (including park rangers and policemen), fishermen, or surfers. They have generally undergone some kind of trauma, such as spear cuts, gunshots, and torture while in captivity. Once they arrive, they often need stitches, epoxy repairs to their shells, rehydrating fluids, antibiotics, and vitamin or mineral support. The onsite veterinary care center can provide all of this and maintains responsibility for both medical attention and feeding of all the tortoises that are brought in. The honored guests also have their shells cleaned regularly.
The majority of the tortoises – and they are tortoises, not turtles (tortoises cannot retract their heads – they escape predators by swimming quickly with their powerful fins) – that come to the centers are green tortoises. Green tortoises are not green at all; they are brown. In fact, their shells are comprised of some of the most beautiful shades of brown I have ever seen, and the patterns on them are amongst the most striking of their features. Green tortoises eat fish when they are young then graduate to a vegetarian diet of grasses and algae as adults, although some of the sicker individuals at the clinic need to be handfed a soupy gruel when they are first admitted.
Green tortoises are one of the two tortoise species endemic to French Polynesia. They happen to be the edible one, and this is their curse. Despite being protected internationally since 1982, they are still endangered. People continue both to poach them in the wild and raise them in captivity in hopes of one day feasting on a local traditional delicacy, turtle soup.
One of Te mana o moana’s main educational objectives is to teach children about the endangered status of the green tortoise, in hopes that they can put a stop to the devastating practice of eating this animal. Currently, the non-profit makes its programs available to every child on the island, and every child on the island visits the clinic at some point in their schooling.
In addition to the green tortoise, the clinic also houses a number of Hawksbill tortoises, the other species that commonly lives in French Polynesia. They get their name from their hawk-like beak, which is ideally suited to the animal’s diet of corals and sponges. Hawksbills are toxic, so they are not hunted for their meat; however, their incredibly hard shells are valued for jewelry and other ornamental uses, so they are often killed for their carapaces.
The clinic has two resident Hawksbills – one named Tortilla and one named Matapo. Tortilla is forty years old. She has a cracked shell that makes it impossible for her to dive. This same injury keeps her from swimming straight and causes her to constantly flip over while swimming – hence her name. She can retrieve the fish that are thrown to her, but she will never be able to leave the rescue center. Her companion, Matapo, is blind, having been shot in the head by a speargun. She has to be handfed, but she can swim well on her own. She, too, is a permanent resident of the clinic.
The other tortoises I was introduced to were all greens. A fifteen-year-old named Tuffy was shot by a speargun in such a way that she constantly swims in circles. She was found doing just that, surrounded by sharks. One young green named Vitaline had a birth defect related to its yolk sac, and another had a defect in it shell that caused it to swim in a jagged trajectory. The green with the most obvious deformity had indentations in the side of his shell. According to the docent, he had been tied up with rope shortly after he was born, since he was being illegally raised in a pen with the intention of eventually being eaten. The ropes impeded the development of his carapace, as was obvious from looking at him. They hope that he will outgrow that deformity during his time at the clinic and be able to be released back into the wild within the year.
The folks that work with the tortoises are trying to teach them to fear people, so we were discouraged from getting too close to them. Getting close to people is what has put these creatures in danger – what has allowed them to be speared by guns or captured for food – so a big part of their rehabilitation is weaning them off of human contact once their immediate medical needs are taken care of.
This made me incredibly sad. These majestic, trusting creatures who are not the slightest bit interested in causing harm to any other life forms – except some small fish the greens eat when they’re young – have to be taught to avoid us, despite the fact that doing so is not in their nature. Once tortoises have survived childhood – which is a treacherous period during which they can be eaten by countless predators – they should be able to live out the rest of their long lives in peace. Instead, they can be victims of poachers and boat propellers that can cut or kill them. Ugh.
And, at the same time, I felt incredibly grateful that I got to observe these beautiful animals, and that they had a safe place to rest and rehabilitate that also happened to allow me time to stare at them. I am always shocked and amazed by mammals that move fluidly in the water. I try so hard to do so, knowing full well that I will never move through that substrate with anywhere near the grace and efficiency that they do.
I can’t believe that there are human beings that don’t see this, that instead see only a tasty meal that will be over in a matter of hours. But maybe Te mana o moana has the right idea – give up on converting the adults and work on the next generation. I hope so, as losing these amazing giants of the sea would make our planet a more impoverished place.