Turtles, All at Sea


By Amy Chavez
For The Bali Times

You never know what’s going to happen on an evening walk around our neighborhood. Sure, some things are predictable, such as that on our walk, my husband and I will stop by Made’s little store for a couple of Bintangs with the locals on his makeshift table and milk-crate chairs. Or that if Agus, who lives across from Made, comes home while we’re there, that he’ll park his car in his driveway and come over for a chat. And that after an hour or so at Made’s, when it’s just getting dark, we will then walk down to the beach, arriving just as the Japanese surfers head back to Kuta in their Kijangs piled high with surfboards. And soon after that the young locals will come with their lovers to stroll among the garbage on the beach and perhaps get a bite to eat at the only warung.

But what happens between these predictable events, no one ever knows. The other night we had stayed a little longer than usual at Made’s and were walking down to the beach well after dark when we saw a suspicious black vehicle parked at the end of the road. The back of the car was open and two men stood looking into it.

As we approached, a young Balinese man spoke to us in perfect English. “Can you help us?”

We went over and looked into the car, where a large Green Turtle looked up at us.

“We need help carrying him to the sea,” the man said.

Green Turtles can reach up to five feet long, and while this turtle wasn’t that big, he was certainly around 30 kilos and a bit awkward to handle.

“We caught him a couple days ago by accident in our fishing net. We took him home but I felt so guilty, so sad, afterwards that now we want to return him to the sea.”

This scene reminded me of a Japanese folktale about a boy named Urashima Taro who helps rescue a turtle and is repaid for his kindness by the turtle, who comes back looking for him the next day and offers him a ride on his back. He takes the boy down to a palace under the sea where the boy spends the next three days with the beautiful princess of the palace.

Keen on rescuing a turtle but not on having a romantic interlude with a princess, I turned the task over to my husband to help carry the massive carapace. After all, if this was his one chance in life to make it with a princess, I wasn’t going to ruin it for him.

Perhaps the way to save the turtle population is to tell the young Balinese men about the rewards.

And the turtle population in Bali is under threat. While tourists may look at the Green Turtle as an endangered animal, the Balinese see it swimming in satay. They use the turtle, a sign of stability and often depicted at temples bearing the weight of the universe on his back, for ceremonial purposes. They are sacrificed and used for eating at weddings and other special occasions. Turtles also symbolize the boundary between earth and other realms. Such as underwater palaces, perhaps.

While the Balinese are blamed for the declining turtle population, what about all those plastic bags lying on the beach? Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of turtles are killed every year from ingesting plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Others die from intestinal perforations due to the sharp pieces of plastic debris ingested. And what about the loss of turtle habitat from tourism? Female turtles need quiet beaches to lay their eggs, and shy away from lighted, noisy beaches with nightclubs and tourist activity along them. If you think the beaches in Bali have changed, imagine what the turtles think!

So while the Balinese may be partly responsible for the declining turtle population through hunting it for meat, certainly we should take some responsibility for the sea turtle’s declining numbers as well. I suggest turtle curfews: during the turtle breeding season, everyone has to be out of any nightclubs near the beach by dusk.

After managing to carry the Green Turtle halfway to edge of the water, they let him walk the rest of the way to freedom on his own.

I would have thought the turtle, lucky to escape with his life, would be practically sprinting. But instead, he would walk for a while, then stop, taking in the scope of his new freedom. Every time the turtle stopped, one of the Balinese men would slap it on its butt. The turtle didn’t seem to be affected by this affectionate butt-slapping, and slowly plodded ahead toward the sea. We cheered him on and bid him farewell, back to his Cheloniidae family.

Oh, I didn’t tell you the end of the Japanese folktale. When Urashima Taro comes back to land after three days with the princess, he realizes he has actually been gone for over 100 years. He immediately turns into a very old man.

But don’t tell Balinese men that.

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