Coming Out of My Shell
Hunted and harassed around the world, have these delicate sea creatures found sanctuary here in Samoa? Roderick Eime delves beneath the waves in search of these enigmatic and delightful animals.
The determined reptile bore down with a single-mindedness only coming from eons of pre-programmed behaviour. This ancient sea creature pursued me with just one thing on its mind, and with the scent of food in its nostrils, wasn’t about to let me get away.
“Oh, give it to him for heaven’s sake,” came the plea from Gardenia, my otherwise patient Samoan guide, and with that I relented and released the fragment of pawpaw into the water. Within seconds Crush’s ravenous jaws were munching contentedly on the bright yellow chunk of fruit.
Sea Turtles, in this case Green Turtles, are about the most serene and kindly-looking animals anywhere on the planet. Most times anywhere else, you’d be jumping out of your skin at the rare sight of one, yet here among the Samoan islands the delightful critters abound.
Crush is my name for the largest turtle here in the pool at the little village of Satoalepai on the far north coast of Savai’i, the largest and northernmost of the two Samoan mainlands. The local family sell tickets to tourists and visitors for ST$5 (about A$2.50) and you are supplied with all the ripe pawpaw the turtles can eat and all the time you want to swim and canoodle with the lovable creatures. I’m told the juvenile turtles here are coaxed from fishermen for a few tala and allowed to grow to maturity before release. But the story varies depending on who you ask. Either way, the dozen or so current residents are in good shape with plenty of room in clean water.
As an amateur SCUBA diver, I also enjoyed a few dives in the crystal clear waters here on the very edge of the South Pacific. Each dive yielded at least one turtle encounter with one underwater exploration near the far eastern tip of Upolu (the other island) delivering eight turtles including the biggest damn Greenie I’ve ever seen. The 200kg monster crept out from under a ledge as I swam past, scared the daylights out of me and nonchalantly swam off.
Most of the world’s turtles are on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) endangered species list as a result of overfishing, deadly driftnets and environmental degradation, particularly to feeding and nesting grounds. In spite of a US National Park Service assessment that places the animals in regional decline, my own unscientific observations would beg to differ. In the lagoon at Fagamalo I was even treated to the gold medal sighting of a critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle grazing unperturbed on algae at about 10m as I photographed it from every angle possible.
“She’s there most times we dive,” says Fabien Lebon, the expert dive guide on Savai’i, “ ‘bonjour Fabien’ she says ‘so just one diver today, oh okay’ and keeps eating. My daughter calls her Vanessa.”
In Samoa the animals have some nominal protection thanks to their mythical status as a saviour of lost seamen. The local name “I'a sa,” translates directly as “sacred fish”. Then there’s the old Samoan legend of the turtle and the shark which recalls unhappy Fonuea, an elderly blind villager, who cast herself and her daughter Salofa into the ocean to be reborn as sea creatures away from the unkind hands of humans.
"Lalelei!, Lalelei!, Lalelei!" the villagers still cry coaxing the pair to reappear at the foot of the cliff. But don’t point or they will immediately disappear, reminded of the cruel treatment that caused their despair.
When caught, turtles weep profusely and this sometimes engenders enough sympathy to throw them back to the sea instead of on the fire. True, despite both legend and legislation, turtles are still caught for food, although much less so in Samoa than other islands such as Fiji where they are gathered and slaughtered live in the Suva markets to the horror of onlookers.
Samoa challenges any writer to avoid the common clichés of “hidden gem”, “best kept secret” or “tropical paradise” precisely because it matches them all exactly. The great novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, sought refuge and inspiration here in his final years and is laid to rest overlooking Apia.
Remote and almost unattainable, Samoa lies at the limit of most regional airlines’ reach, while conveniently avoiding mention in most tourist texts dominated by closer cousins Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Samoa’s lack of pervasive tourism infrastructure is a key selling point. The relatively few resorts are low impact, relaxed and uncrowded. Vigorous touts, tacky tourist haunts and Chinese-made souvenirs are rare, leaving most attractions to the native ingenuity of the locals.
P&O Cruises have rediscovered Samoa thanks to its cruise-friendly port (Apia), engaging excursions, rich culture and relaxed atmosphere and have doubled their scheduled visitations over the next year. Elite surfers and committed sports divers too have jealously kept Samoa under their beanies for years.
For me, I’d be happy if Samoa retained its seclusion, cherished its low profile and remained ambivalent about the growing interest in its natural and scenic treasures. But that won’t happen in a world crying out for new experiences and destinations far from the madding crowd. Please, if you go, tread lightly, be polite and don’t hassle the turtles.
The Samoa Tourism Authority has a wide range of travel, tour and accommodation options to suit all budgets. Visit their website at www.samoa.travel
Samoa Airways begins flights between Apia in November 2017.
Australia (Toll FREE) 1800 359 726
The writer was a guest of Samoa Tourism Authority
Words and images: Roderick Eime