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Swimming with turtles in Hawaii

In this week’s travel feature Eyleen Gomez and her husband Paul take a dive in the clear waters of Hawaii in search of some turtles.

by Eyleen Gomez

Honolulu, on the Island of Oahu (O’ahu in Hawaiian), the capital city of the Hawaiian Islands, is home to one of the world’s most famous beaches, Waikiki.

While watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean horizon from this beach is a must during a trip to Honolulu, seeing what occupies the water beyond the shoreline can result in a surreal encounter with the wonderful green sea turtles (Honu).

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My husband Paul and I both knew that snorkelling on the Islands of Hawaii (or Hawai’i in Hawaiian) was a must do part of our honeymoon. We tried in vain to see if we could achieve this on various beaches on the Big Island of Hawaii and on the North Shore of Oahu.

In the end, we decided to take an organised tour to Turtle Canyon, just off the coast of Waikiki.

Turtle Canyon is a cleaning station for the turtles and as a result you don’t just get to see the green sea turtle, but an array of fish and stunning reefs.

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The green sea turtle is the largest hard-shelled sea turtle in the world. Living up to 70 years old, they can reach up to 100cm long and can weight up to 150kg. These turtles were once killed for their skins, meat (deemed a delicacy) and shells.

They are no longer hunted in Hawaii. Historically they have always been part of Hawaiian culture, with some natives tracing their spirit animal back to them. In addition, they have been illustrated in ancient drawings by the Hawaiian people.

While their numbers have declined worldwide, they are on the increase in Hawaii thanks to strict protection laws. It is illegal to get too near to the turtles or to touch them and you must keep a distance of three meters away. However, at times, they can, and do, touch you. This is acceptable as they are faster swimmers than humans, but you should always endeavour to keep out of their way.

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According to NOAA Fisheries (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) the “Hawaiian green turtle population has experienced an increasing nesting population trend of 5% per year over the last two decades.”

Feeding almost exclusively on algae they also eat jellyfish and as a result fall prey to plastic/marine debris pollution, mistaking a plastic bag for a jellyfish is sadly too common an occurrence.

Donning an inflatable safety vest and snorkel gear, as well as a special sunscreen that does not damage reefs, we jump off the back of a luxury catamaran into the warm blue green tropical water.

Swimming away from the boat I was poised with my underwater camera and Paul with his Go-Pro ready to capture this magnificent creature. It didn’t take long as within a few minutes I could see Paul swimming backwards in a bid to keep his distance as a turtle snuck up on him.

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Although I had seen them bask somewhat on a beach on the North Shore of the island, swimming with them close up was a wonderful and momentous sight, one that I will remember for the rest of my life.

A three legged turtle seemed to take a shine to Paul and enjoyed ‘squaring’ up to him. It came up so close at times it was almost as if it knew the law and knew Paul had to retreat quickly if he came near and this amused it.

No sooner had my heart beat normalised from seeing one, that it increased rapidly once more, there was one less than a meter away from me. Torn between capturing a shot up that close and not breaking the law I swam out of its direction as quickly as I could.

Watching other fish feed on them and seeing how their eco-system works was fascinating too.

Over our two weeks visit to the Hawaiian Island we saw many beautiful scenes and experienced a lot of wonderful moments that didn’t involve being on honeymoon. But, perhaps the encounter with
these magnificent sea creatures takes the number one slot of my top five on the island of Oahu.