A swim with turtles (maybe)

Christopher Johnson goes in search of a new 'pet' on the beaches of Tokashiki, Okinawa

by Christopher Johnson

For snorkelers, there’s perhaps nothing better than hanging out underwater with a hawksbill sea turtle. Safer than sharks, they are graceful and beautiful, ancient and wise. But sightings are rare. Of my hundreds of snorkeling adventures, I’ve only seen turtles, from a distance, in Palau and Koh Tao in Thailand.

YouTube, however, has videos of people wading into waters teeming with turtles off Tokashiku Beach on the west side of the Okinawan island of Tokashiki, famed for its coral reefs and white-sand Aharen Beach.

The idea seemed irresistible: wake up in Tokyo, fly three hours to Naha, ride the monorail 15 minutes, walk 10 minutes to Tomari Port, take a 35- or 70-minute ferry to Tokashiki, ride the ¥400 island bus up and down the mountains, and then spend the afternoon playing with turtles.

But when I got to Aharen Beach, locals told me that the turtles no longer laid eggs on Tokashiku Beach, about an hour’s hike away, because of a hotel and youth camp attracting noisy humans who scared the turtles away years ago. I wondered if I would see them.

A local fisherman, Hideaki Yodoya, who fed me raw clams straight out of the ocean, told me he once saw turtles near a wild, relatively untrammeled beach about 30 minutes’ walk from our campground. Trekking over sand and shells to a remote spot, I made two swims per day without a wet suit in the cold ocean of spring. I saw a world-class reef teeming with rarely seen fish. Just meters from a pyramid-shaped rock formation, I came across a stunning drop-off, perhaps 15 meters straight down. I felt like an astronaut hovering above the ocean floor, as hundreds of fish danced in the sunlight.

At other spots, I saw 30 squid cruising near the surface, giant unicorn fish, dangerous crown-of-thorn starfish hiding in the reef and slow-moving lion fish (also known as scorpion or turkey fish) guarded by poisonous quills. A current pulled me dangerously close to a black-and-white-banded sea snake slithering up to the surface for air. At sundown, which is breakfast time for many nocturnal creatures, I went just beyond the rope-line and buoys of the designated swimming area off Aharen Beach to see, about 10 meters away, the fearsome agility of a giant irabu sea snake — perhaps 170 cm long with venom said to be 10 times more deadly than a cobra.

It was an amazing experience, but I really wanted to see a turtle. I’ve been wanting a new pet since our Newfoundland dog passed away last year at age 15, just months shy of the world longevity record for her breed. I don’t mind if my pet lives far away in the wild. A hawksbill seems to fit the bill. They are about 1 meter long and 80 kg on average, twice the weight of our dog, and one even reached 127 kg.

They also live a long time. Hawksbills often take 40 years to mature, and they live another decade after that, about the same as elephants. But some live much longer. King Malila, a radiated tortoise from Madagascar that became a gift from Captain Cook to the Tongan royal family, was born in 1777, met Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and died in 1965, at age 188.

Harriet, who sailed with Charles Darwin, died at the Australia Zoo in Queensland in 2006 at age 175. Timothy, a Royal Navy mascot who passed away at age 165, was perhaps England’s oldest resident. Jonathan, born in the 1830s, is reportedly still living on St. Helena Island in the Atlantic.

With a house on their back like a backpacker with a tent, turtles are solitary travelers, meeting only to mate. They eat sea sponges, anemones and jellyfish, rest in caves and ledges in reefs and shallow lagoons, and also swim long distances in the open ocean with flipperlike arms.

For years, the females would drag themselves onto Tokashiku Beach under the cover of darkness to dig holes with their back flippers, lay about 100 eggs, cover them over with sand and sneak back into the water.

Two months later, the tiny 2-cm-long babies would hatch at night and crawl toward the reflection of the moon on the water before crabs and shorebirds could catch them in daylight.

But they had a much deadlier predator: humans, who prize the artistic beauty of their shells, like calligraphy in brushstrokes of black, red and orange on an amber canvas. The carapace even changes color depending on water temperature.

Between 1950 and 1992, hunters in Cuba, Panama, Indonesia and elsewhere killed more than 1.3 million turtles, including 400,000 nesting females, for export to Japan, the world’s largest consumer, despite bans by the U.S. and other countries in the 1970s, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The IUCN in 2008 reported that the number of mature females nesting at 25 sites around the world had decreased by 87 percent over three generations.

Many observers believe that tourism is a good way to preserve species and help rural communities shift to more eco-friendly industries.

The village of Aharen, teeming with minshuku (guesthouses), restaurants and dive shops, is a great example of this. Aharen Beach is attractive for what it lacks: condos and high-rise resorts. From the sand, all you see — other than a small port and the family-run Southern Cross and Sunflower hotels — is green bushes and forested mountains. From north to south, the “beachfront property” consists of a rustic campground with cold showers, decent Western-style toilets and a covered cooking area — all just steps from the beach and the little village, unlike the Zamami campground that is 10 minutes’ walk from town.

Mid-beach, where a Hilton or Sheraton might stand, is an elementary school. (High schoolers go to Naha.) A local teacher named Miho, who spent a year as an exchange student in Colorado, said the school has 10 teachers for 22 kids, including three in grade one and one in grade two.

Teachers often gather for drinks and excellent Okinawan food at the family-run Baraku restaurant. The school’s principal, strumming with a telephone card that scratched his guitar’s wooden finish, had everybody clapping and singing along. Tetsuo “Te-chan” Morikawa, a retired ANA pilot who spends half his retirement here, ordered me awamori fire-water and, drinks in hand, walked me around the cozy village to other funky, friendly places. He used to “commute” from Tokyo to Aharen once a month. Sometimes, encountering bad weather, he would fly in and go back on the same day. “I’m running out of money on my pension,” he quipped. “But I still have enough for awamori.”

He and others gave me good advice on where and when to see the turtles.

After two raining days, the sun came out. Hiking roadside up and down the hill, I reached Tokashiku Beach at low tide. Snorkelers were leaving the beach, disappointed not to find turtles. I waited till 3 p.m. for the tide to come in, hoping the currents might carry my turtle closer to shore. I waded toward the reef, but thought of giving up as the wind whipped up the water. Before turning back to shore, I dunked my head under — and found a turtle right at my feet!

It was beautiful, and indeed bigger than our dog, its size amplified underwater. It seemed ancient, with cloudy eyes and rumpled skin on its neck.

Unafraid of me, it quietly went about its business of foraging in the sand. I could have patted its back, but I gave it room, and noticed a baby shark sheltering under its tummy.

We spent maybe 15 minutes together, as if walking my dog. I counted 34 segments on its shell, shining like a jewel in the flickering sunlight. Every few minutes, my pet would gently zoom up to the surface, sip a gulp of air, and then perform a graceful swan dive back down.

I could have spent all afternoon with it. But eventually my shivering became uncontrollable, and I had to say goodbye. It swam like an eagle, gliding with minimal effort, and I swear it looked back at me, as if to bid adieu.

I wouldn’t see turtles again on Tokashiki. But the buzz lasted for days, even after returning to my own shell in Tokyo. I knew that my migratory pet was out there somewhere in the wild ocean, waiting perhaps to meet me again someday.

Camping at the youth village on the north end of Aharen Beach costs ¥800 per person, plus about ¥1,200 to rent a tent. Rooms with a sea view can be found at Sunflower for ¥5,250 per person or at Southern Cross for ¥4,000-6,000. Restaurants include Baraku, Octopus Garden, Masa no Mise and Seafriend; the latter has free PC usage with Internet. Ferry schedules and prices in English can be found at www2.vill.tokashiki.okinawa.jp/en/ship_inf/time/timeschl.htm. Christopher Johnson is author of the novels “Siamese Dreams” and “Kobe Blue”; www.globalitemagazine.com.