Swimming With Turtles

June 2, 2014 frvtravel

In 1990, Mataua Matai’a from the Pacific island nation of Samoa visited a friend in Brisbane who had an injured marine turtle in a pool in her backyard. Everyday, many people came to see and feed the turtle and it got Mataua thinking: perhaps she could create something similar in Samoa, where turtles, or I’a sa (sacred fish), have for centuries been an important part of tradition, folklore and song. Ian Neubauer heads to the Pacific to see for himself what’s happened since.

Text by Ian Lloyd Neubauer

Mataua’s legacy – the Satoalepai Turtle Reserve on the island of Savai’i – is one of only a few places on earth where you can not only feed but swim with globally endangered green turtles in captivity. “The photos don’t do it justice. You really have to see it yourself,” says John Rouse, a visitor from New Zealand. “They’re quite friendly, though don’t put your hand in front of them because they think you’re giving them food and try to bite you. But even if they do, it doesn’t hurt, “ adds his 11-year-old son David.

In the spirit of eco-tourism, the Matai’a family work to conserve green turtles, which are still legally hunted in Samoa for subsistence purposes. “Any fisherman who catches a turtle, we pay them to bring them here,” says Mataua’s son-in-law Papalii Faafetai. “We breed them, and when they are big enough, we contact the Fisheries Division and they come and tag the turtles and release them into the ocean,” he says, adding that the turtle’s shells are cleaned regularly to remove algae build up.

The algae is a byproduct of the high concentration of waste produced by the 20-something turtles living in the holding pond. And while it’s not necessarily harmful to the turtles or those who wade in, the murky waters have irked a few visitors.

Click to view slideshow.

“The chance to get close to these remarkable animals really needs to be tempered with appropriate management of them,” reads a post at consumer review website TripAdvisor. “I strongly advise you to avoid supporting this inhumane treatment of creatures,” says another. “These rescued turtles are not being rehabilitated – simply being used for commercial purposes,” reads a third.

If there’s one thing the Matai’a family isn’t doing, it’s getting rich on the back of the turtle. Entry is only $2 for tourists, some of who fork out up to $300 a night to sleep in luxury air-conditioned bungalows down the road. Nevertheless, the ecological value of this grassroots eco-business warrants expert examination.

“If it’s rehabilitating injured turtles, then that in principle is a good thing,” says Dr Colin Limpus, Chief Scientist of the Aquatic Threatened Species Unit at Australia’s Queensland University. “But from seeing the photographs, it doesn’t look like an appropriate animal welfare site. This kind of thing happens a lot in the developing world, where they hold the animals for longer than they need and don’t always give them good veterinary care.”

Limpus also says the Satoalepai Turtle Reserve could pose a severe threat to wild marine turtle populations in Samoa: “If they bring in a diseased turtle, it could infect the others held there and potentially start an epidemic when they’re released.”

The warning was seconded by Dr David Waayers, director of Perth-based environmental consultancy firm Imbricata. The author of a paper on Marine Turtles and Tourism at Australia’s Ningaloo Turtle Program – the global benchmark in marine turtle conservation – Waayers draws parallels between the Satoalepai Turtle Reserve and other ecotourism startups he’s seen in the developing world.

“I looked at many of these issues while studying ecotourism as an alterative to hunting in Indonesia,” he says. “What I often found is that the science behind what they do is questionable and the ability for the people managing it to understand good animal husbandry is quite limited.”

Waayers recalls a restaurant in Bali where baby turtles were kept in small water channels between tables and fattened up for eventual release: “The owner was buying the turtles on the black market then releasing them and so encouraging the poachers to go out and catch them again,” he says. “So it didn’t really make any sense to me.”

Back in sleepy Samoa, where tourism gives people like the Matai’a family a rare opportunity to make money, the debate is null and void. Faafetai does everything in his power to care for the turtles while bemoaning the government for rejecting repeated request for state funding. Yet it’s the amenities, not the holding pond, he wants to fix, pointing out a series of unfinished bungalows built on the very edge of the holding pond.

The Samoan Tourist Authority told me it’s in the process of developing the reserve into “more of an educational experience [and] ensuring the turtles are properly cared for and released when ready for breeding”. But with a tiny tourism sector that’s still on its back foot following a devastating tsunami in 2009, its unclear how or when authorities will meet these lofty objectives.

Yet if they do pull it off, the Satoalepai Turtle Reserve could become a world-class attraction, according to Dr Catherine Bell. A marine turtle biologist from the UK, Bell spent three years working in the Cayman Islands trying – and not yet succeeding – to shut down the world’s last commercial turtle meat farm.

“If they’re only taking a few turtles and keeping them in good conditions, it can raise awareness and contribute to the conservation of the species,” she says. “People love turtles. Once you interact with them, it stays with you forever. And I think that has a lot of value.”

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