A Night on the Turtle Islands: Guest Post from Deena
We recently shared some reflections from Samantha, who joined us for our 2015 trip to Ulithi as a part of our Youth Expedition with BluEcology. Here, Deena shares her experience from camping out at the Turtle Islands on June 24 with the youth team. Read the rest of her notes from this year’s trip and see more of her photos at her blog!
June 24th, 11pm
Spent last night on Turtle Island (Geilob)! We had been aiming to travel there our whole time in Ulithi so far, but weather has so far prevented us. The island is a little ways outside of the main atoll lagoon. There were strong currents headed out there yesterday morning.
We arrived at the uninhabited island, which was relatively unmarred by the typhoon. Still damaged, but somewhat less so than the other islands. We set up camp, a tarps stretched over the sand between trees, and then out for coral size frequency transects. The water was rough here and I didn’t last too long. For dinner, we wove our coconut frond plates, and the Ulithi guys caught fish and coconut crab for dinner. The coconut crabs are huge and purple blue – gorgeous animals. There are highly endangered, redlisted, but they try to take the older ones, and not too many. I feel that old conflict rising up, but remind myself that these are sustenance fishers and this is how it is. You don’t blame sustenance fishers who have been surviving here for centuries for the shortcomings of modern overharvesting. But still, though.
Also it’s delicious. Despite everything, I am extremely grateful for this meal. In addition, in the mix of fresh fish is the sweet lips that Cole has managed to successfully spear!
Hanging from a tree we spot a fruit bat! Just chilling, eating some fruit, spitting out the untasty parts. Fruit bat things. Also saw a pair of green sea turtles mating in the surf, not a super common thing.
Night falls on Turtle Island and we sit on the beach as the sun goes down. Sam plays the uke and we are all excitedly still, waiting for instructions from Junior and the commencing of the sea turtle data collection that we are here to do tonight. The females are coming up to lay these nights, hauling their hard, heavy bodies up onto the sand, up further and further until they are satisfied with their nesting location. While they lay, the turtle team (three Ulithi men, part of the Ulithi Marine Turtle Project, which Junior supervises) will measure them, count their eggs as they come out, and either tag her or check her preexisting tag. At around 10 or 11pm, we mobilize, walking in small quiet groups, listening for the scraping sound of sand being thrown from a hole. I come to where most people are observing – there is a female green laying. She is huge and beautiful and her eggs are perfect little orbs. The team works quickly, taking measurements and recording data. Then she needs to leave. The typhoon has left a good deal of debris on the beach, fallen branches and logs. Sometimes the females, exhausted after their nesting expedition and confronted with the obstacle-ridden return, can’t make it back to sea. Their bodies lay under thick twisted branches here and there, spent for the sake of their offspring. This female is in a similar position, so the team must manhandle the heavy creature towards the right path. She drags herself to the waves, each stroke of her flippers taking every ounce of strength and determination she can muster. Each one makes me hold my breath, watching her labor back home. The water comes up to meet her and she is gone.
Down on the sand, we see it – the sea turtle hatchlings! They are coming up! The laying season has every female mating and laying a few times each, so there is an overlap of laying and hatching. They are tiny little big-headed discs, flipping their comical fins on instinct, flinging themselves towards the water, leaping almost. Life is so cool.
At around 4am, heaving beating rain starts, drumming on our tarp. I like it.
Breakfast is eggs and pumpkin and octopus and coffee. I pack up my tent, and give it to Carolyn, the Peace Corps girl who joined us for Turtle Island. She could use it more than me. It is hot, very hot. Even for Ulithi. I lie under some coconut trees and stare at the birds flying overhead. The black ones are frigates, but what are the small white ones? There were boobies earlier, too! Super cool birds. Two green lizards chase each other around a coco tree trunk, the type I caught yesterday. There are hermit crabs everywhere – Turtle Island has more hermit crabs than any of the other islands I’ve seen. Huge ones! The sand moves with them. They come out of their shells if you whistle!
We pack up our campsite and it’s back on the boat. The science team hits another site while junior takes us to Lizard Island, aka Losiep. No one lives here and no one will. It is known by the Ulithi as a dark place, dangerous, and full of monitor lizards. Locals do not like the monitor lizards, not at all. They are invasive, anyways, but they don’t like them for reasons far beyond that. But we think they’re still cool (to a degree, we all know what invasives do). The most painfully obvious thing on Losiep is actually the pigs. Huge pigs, destructive pigs. They weren’t here the last time Junior was here (I think he said two years ago – this is not a frequented island, even by Ulithians). He is very clearly distressed. The pigs ransack, they eat, they destroy the underbrush and the seabird nests and, basically, everything. They go insane over the coconut husks we discard – a large (so large!) female gets a running start and flips a smaller pig up into the air with her head. Their presence here is a job for Island Conservation and I hope their effect can be mitigated one day.
As we leave, Carolyn has an armful of coconuts. There aren’t too many coconuts back on any of the other islands. “Leave those here!” Junior instructs. Like I said, the Ulithi don’t like Lizard Island. You don’t bring back the coconuts from Lizard Island.
We rendezvous with the science team at the nearby Bird Island and all three boats turn towards Falalop.
Then tonight at the lodge, at dinner, Peter breaks out a tub of Nutella and the crowd goes wild.
After dinner, as the Ulithi kids come over and everyone settles in to project Jurassic Park III on the wall, Sam and I get to do something we’ve been pining to do. Avigdore lets us use the (expensive, expensive) equipment that he and Peter have been using to see the coral larvae recruitments at night. The UV lights and the amber filters that fit over our snorkel masks! He gives us (slightly foreboding) instructions and tells us to be back in 30 minutes. Cole joins us (we’ll share equipment) and we walk the short walk to the water in the starlight. The Ocean is cool, the first time it has felt kind of cool. Or maybe that’s the nervous anticipation. First we dive just with the regular flashlights. It is beyond amazing. The nocturnal fish are out, saucer-eyed schools. Crinoids bloom and undulate in the current. A crown of thorn bristles from a rocky reef outcropping. And up near the surface, the opal moonlit surface above us, seven tiny bioluminescent reef squid are facing us. Just facing us, and they let us put our palms underneath their bodies and they are but little handfuls but they seem giant in our eyes. Then, as if one of them gives the signal, they raise their two longer arms up, ink, and are gone.
With the UV lights and filters, another world is exposed. Blacks become blacker, kind of red, and coral planula are highlighted in neon green.
I never thought I would ever see something like this. We all grin huge, happy grins, even underwater. We finally swim back to shore, and Sam and I sit in the breaking waves, laughing and shining the UV lights towards the water and it lights the waves up bright turquoise. By the time we walk back into the lodge, Jurassic Park III is over. We carefully clean the instruments, and return them to Avigdore along with our deepest thanks.
Tomorrow is our last full day here.