The Day the Sea Turtles Came to Play

“The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted by extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”  Henry Beston

One of the things I like the best about living where I do is that it seems impossibly easy sometimes to have magical encounters on the sea that feel like something more out of a Nat Geo special than simply a morning away from the working world. From winter through spring we’re greeted by whale songs, playful behavior and the littlest of calves learning the ways of their new found world.  It’s always a sad day when you realize that the whales have departed once again for far away waters, just their lack of presence makes the waters seem a little less full. And probably because it is.

But the rest of the year, if you’re lucky, time spent on the water can be equally rewarding. There are resident pods of spinner and bottlenose dolphins that fill their days perusing the coastline, monk seals who although very elusive, are a much welcome treat to find, and then there are the always present green sea turtle – locally known as Honu.  These turtles are classified as an endangered species, and thus protected, which makes it illegal to pursue or pester them and a hefty fine of up to $2,000 is imposed to anyone caught doing just that.  The DNLR recommends a safe viewing distance of 50 yards in the wild.  But what if a turtle decides that IT wants to pursue YOU and less than 5 feet let alone 50 yards?

This is just what happened to me on a recent paddle boarding trip to a favorite South Maui area of coastline.

I try to get in the water with my board as often as time allows, and even some days when it doesn’t.  The ocean has always been a place of solstice and can quickly clear my head even on the foggiest of days.  I’m sure it’s similar to what many find from meditation or yoga, but there’s just something to being out on the water, forced to submit to it’s ebbs and flows or be quickly kicked off your little floating platform, only to have to hop back on and start all over again.  I love this.  I love that for it to work right, I have to go with the flow and be relaxed.  As should be life on land as well I suspect, but the ocean has a way of proving her point a lot more efficiently than the land does in this regard.

But I digress… so back to the Honu who decided to invite me to play in their Honu games.

I had spent a good amount of time that early morning traveling first north along the coast, over the reefs looking for manta ray and sea turtles and hoping maybe even for an always wonderful, but unexpected dolphin encounter.  No dolphin or rays to be found, but there were a few turtles who popped up along the way here and there to get a better view of what was going on above.  Most were fairly shy so I continued on my way and circled back to hop out of the water in the little bay where I put in.

For some reason, I’ve had really good luck in this bay being able to get some really nice photographs of turtles, and by snorkeling alongside my paddle board I’ve found some great rocky formations underwater that seem to create the perfect turtle condos.  There’s always several turtles resting, circling, or coming and going from these gathering spots so I decided before I headed in for the day to give one spot close to shore a little look.

Sure enough, I spotted a medium sized Honu at the surface with a large, white, gauzy looking substance on its mouth. For the first few minutes, I thought maybe this was some sort of growth that seems to plague a couple of the other turtles in the area, but when I put on my mask and slipped into water to investigate it became obvious that it was definitely not a growth. The turtle was approaching me, shaking it’s head from side to side, and wiping at it’s mouth with a flipper and I thought “has it gotten a hold of a piece of trash and it needs my help to remove it?”

Well, sticking my fingers anywhere next to a beak of that size seemed a little daunting so I just floated there, watching and taking a few photos before all of the sudden the turtle spit the object out right in front of me.  Then he circled around and grabbed it again with might. He proceeded to shake his head vigorously, whack the object with a flipper and then he would spit it out all over again to start from square one.  Right about the time he threw the object, which I’m now assuming is an old piece of fishing bait, out of the water and jumped out after it was the time I started filming.  For quite some time, the turtle continued to play a very amusing game nearly bumping into me several times as it tossed it’s “toy” around like a dog trying to lure me into its game.

Before I knew it, coming completely out of left field (literally) was turtle number two.  I first saw it through the camera  and assumed it was coming to play with its friend. Nope!  It made a beeline straight for me.  I had to back up to avoid a complete collision as this second turtle circled me and rubbed on me and watched me from an almost alarmingly close distance – all while his buddy was still having a great ‘ole time with his own little turtle game.

As the water started getting cold, and the first turtle tired of its game, I looked up only to see my board had floated a pretty good distance away.  So I quickly decided it was time to go and swam off until I was able to get my board and climb back on to dry off.  A kayaker was passing by and we exchanged pleasantries as I asked if he had seen the turtle’s behavior.  As I started to try to describe it, he pointed behind me and I think he even swore, as sure enough, darting toward me (in turtle terms) was the same turtle who had clearly followed me across the bay when I swam away.  Once it reached my board, it immediately started swimming very tight figure 8’s underneath, close enough so that I was petting it’s shell as it brushed the bottom of the board when I sat. It would pop up, look at me, and then circle some more as if to say “why aren’t you playing anymore?  Come back in!”

At this point I can say without question that both of us humans were nothing less than shocked and I could not stop laughing at the persistence of my new found little friend.  So of course, lacking any willpower at all at this point, in I slipped again, camera and all.  I continued to take several still photos and eventually filmed once again since it was such a unique opportunity.  The not so small turtle proceeded to circle around me, rub into me, chase after my toes and even head butt my camera throughout our final play session.  For a few minutes there I wasn’t sure if I should be charmed or alarmed at its insistency of chasing me and my toes, after all, with a beak of those proportions my toes could not possibly hold their ground.  Apparently the pink nail polish must be a personal turtle favorite!  Who knew?

Once again when I became too cold to continue I bid goodbye to my new little pal and paddled toward shore, smiling like the Cheshire Cat the whole way in!

How lucky to have an opportunity to not only witness, but be a participant in such unusual activity. I feel like I was given a little gift that day of being brought into the little turtle’s world, if only for a few minutes, of which I am very grateful and even more than a little amused.

For those thinking this might be a work of fiction, I’ve included links to the 2 videos, in order of what is explained here in this tale, and also attached a few favorite photos taken below.  As with anything in life, just being around wildlife shows you that you never really know what to expect, other than at times the unexpected itself and it’s best to just go with it when it comes.

Watch Video #1

Watch Video #2  

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About A Place In Time Photography

I am Professional Photographer based out of Maui, HI. The passion behind my photography business is (1) to travel and volunteer both within the US and abroad with various animal sanctuaries to (2) capture valuable visual and written documentation to be able to (3) put to use in educating others. This all done with the hopes of being able to give back as much as possible both within the local community as well as internationally - especially when it comes to environmental protection and animal rights. People can't begin to fix a problem if they don't know it exists.
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