I’ve been a snorkeler since I was in my early teens, but the clear blue waters off the Kona Coast of Big Island, Hawaii are very different from the Lake Erie I knew as a kid. For one thing, before the Zebra Mussel invasion, the visibility of the Lake was about eighteen inches. Here in Hawaii I’m looking down at coral that’s sixty feet below me. I’m watching Raccoon Butterfly Fish and Parrot Fish and a beautiful little fish the locals call Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa. (It’s taken me all week to learn to pronounce that.)
Then there’s a peculiar sound, unlike anything I’ve ever heard before, a deep monotonous moaning. “Eeeeeeeeeee-yaaaawn”, it goes. Alarmed, I pop my head above water to make sure the 64 foot catamaran that brought us here isn’t sinking. I’ve never heard the sound of a sinking boat, except in the movie “Titanic”, but that was my first thought. I go back beneath the surface and there it is again. “Keeeeey-yaaawn, and it is answered by a distant call, a softer “Eeeee-ahhhh.” I am the kind of guy whose hackles go up when he is out of his element, and these warm, clear waters are the habitat of several predatory fish like the Barracuda, not to mention Hammerhead and Oceanic White-tip sharks. So it’s a bit of a relief when I realize those ominous and alien sounds are the call of the Humpback Whale, maybe the same ones we watched breaching the surface, with a calf close in tow, on our way over here. Their calls can be heard for a hundred miles.
But I’m not here to see the fish, the coral, the urchins or listen to the whales (although it was one of the coolest experiences of my life). I came out here today to swim with the Green Sea Turtle. Native Hawaiians call him the Honu, and not far from here there is a giant petroglyph drawn in the lava fields where the ancients sought to honor him. He sails by beneath me, the most effortless of swimmers. His feet are flippers, different from land turtles and better adapted to the job. At forty feet below the surface I’m at my free-dive limits and can only stay with him a few seconds before my bulging ear drums and the nagging need for oxygen send me back to the surface. But he is strangely ambivalent to my presence. He looks right at me, he definitely sees me, but he shows no reaction at all. It’s like he doesn’t care one way or the other about my presence; I’m just another fish.
Back in the lagoon near my hotel I see another Honu, and decide to swim out to him in these waters that are only about sixteen feet deep. I’m a little intimidated by all the eels I see, but just like snakes, if you leave them alone they’ll leave you alone. But seeing them up close, the Green Sea Turtle is indeed a curiosity. They feed voraciously on plant life covering rocks on the bottom. It’s comical to watch them try to wipe seaweed off their mouths with a flipper, and in my head I can just hear them noisily chomping away “OM, NOM NOM!” but the sounds of the underwater world are very different.
Their lack of fear of people concerns me. A few weeks ago when I saw sea turtles on the Florida coast, they disappeared before I could get a picture. Of the seven varieties of sea turtle in the world, the Honu is the only one that will beach itself and bask in the sun. Its flippers are almost useless on land, and it can’t even draw its head and limbs into its shell for protection. For some reason they are congregating in the stirred up waters beneath a small waterfall, and I move in to see what has them all bunched up. There must be twenty turtles in a small area, and all I see through my mask is bubbles beneath the falls until suddenly there is a flipper and then a three foot wide shell in my face. It’s illegal to touch a Honu and I turn sharply away only to find another one on my left, right there! Over the past decade the Honu has become the symbol of Oceanic Ecology, and maybe it’s because its fate is entirely in the hands of people and in how we regard it, just like the oceans themselves.
Back in the boat my dive guide explains to me the various parts of his elaborate Samoan tribal tattoo, and I ask about the significance of the turtle in it. He says the Honu returns from hundreds of miles away to lay eggs where it was born, and so having the turtle with him means he will always be able to find his way home. Hawaii is the 50th state I’ve visited, an odd accomplishment to have touched them all, but I leave this state’s warm waters having had the life of the Green Sea Turtle touch me.