With Turtles

Ancient Navigators of the Pacific
Sarah Klain


turtle mappingWhen viewed on a map of the world, Pacific islands resemble galaxies of stars afloat in an immense space of ocean.  The isolation of each island has forced their human inhabitants to become extraordinary navigators, capable of sailing from one island to another using only stars, currents, fish, and birds as their guides.  To ward off starvation during these perilous journeys, sea turtles were kept alive onboard for weeks, providing the sustenance necessary to reach the next island. 

turtle mapping Only recently have the astounding navigational skills of the sea turtles themselves become apparent, as new technology has allowed us to track the migrations of hundreds of turtles across the globe.  The leading Palauan expert on sea turtles, Joshua Eberdong, traveled to the remote Merir Island on a rickety state boat, the Atoll Way, to mount a satellite transmitter on a nesting green turtle fondly named Fini Melieli (Lady of Merir).  Subsequently, Joshua and his colleagues received periodic e-mails from Fini Melieli, conveying the latitude and longitude of the turtle’s progress plying the waters of the western Pacific.  In twelve days, she swam over 370 miles, from her nesting beach on Merir to the coast of Papua, Indonesia!  This is the first evidence of a turtle nesting in Palau and then swimming to the waters of another country.  She swam nearly due south, instinctively navigating the vastness of the Pacific. Both Fini Melieli and a second nesting green turtle, named Helen, were tracked over a thousand miles from Palau to the Aru Islands of Indonesia.

The satellite-tracking project grew out of community consultations with the rubaks of Palau, the older venerated men, who concur that there are far fewer turtles now than when they were young.  In 2003, the Palau National Government’s Bureau of Marine Resources, in partnership with the Palau Conservation Society, initiated the Marine Turtle Conservation and Monitoring Program to respond to the lack of scientific data regarding declines in turtles.  Joshua—with his own intimate knowledge of Palau’s reefs and islands and of traditional fieldwork methodology—saw the opportunity to introduce new methods and applied for a Peace Corps volunteer with geographic information systems (GIS) skills to enhance turtle monitoring and data collection efforts.  Thus brought into the project, I helped Joshua in communicating with a global network of turtle conservationists, teaching database management, inputting and managing GIS data, working on grants, and conducting fieldwork.

Monitoring beaches for turtle nesting in Palau’s turtle mappingfamed Rock Islands, jungle-clad islands that appear to float on their eroding limestone foundations, is often disheartening given the prevalence of poached nests.  The older generation talk about the past nest abundance and the relative lack of both turtles and their nests now.  Despite the laws that protect turtle nests, enforcement of turtle conservation laws is inadequate, as it is in most developing countries. Around the world and as close as the neighboring island of Yap, distinct breeding populations have gone extinct.

In the cultural context of Palau, green turtles are food, most tasty when cooked in coconut milk.  Hawksbill turtle shells are made into toluk, dishes that symbolize women’s wealth and are exchanged in first birth ceremonies as well as funerals.  The traditional view is that turtles are valuable because they are useful.  Indeed, Joshua no doubt developedturtle mapping his astute turtle nest spotting eyes by harvesting nests when he was younger.  As one of the island’s foremost fishermen and hunters, Joshua still advocates sustainable use as part of a conservation strategy, but he also recognizes the vulnerability of sea turtles to extinction.  His transformation from hunter to conservationist came about largely due to opportunities to improve his knowledge and skills by working in the conservation field in Palau. 

Similar to Joshua, Palauans and other Pacific islanders who consume turtles are beginning to see that these formerly ubiquitous animals face an ominous future and that their survival depends on human actions. Sea turtles all over the Pacific will likely go extinct without more action to protect turtle eggs, reduce harvesting, and minimize turtle bycatch in longlining. However, with focused education and enforcement programs, other turtle populations have rebounded in numerous locations, including Hawaii and several Caribbean islands, and I remain hopeful in Palau.

turtle mappingI taught GIS to my counterpart and the office’s administrative assistant, since maps are one of the best ways to clearly display information about resources, time, and space in an understandable format.  Our turtle-tracking map was published biweekly in the local newspaper, creating quite a buzz around the island since no one previously knew where Palau’s turtles swam.  Palauans are amazed and proud of this hardy reptile that clearly belongs not just to Palau, but to the larger constellation of islands across the Pacific.  Satellite tracking reflects the interconnectedness of these highly migratory, 100-million-year-old species.  Managing turtles requires international collaboration, which can be enhanced by modern technology. Closer to home, Joshua and I created maps of the location and frequency of turtles nesting at specific beaches which have helped to prioritize conservation efforts in Palau.

Turning the tide on declining turtle populations necessitates changing people’s hearts, not just their minds.  I have talked with many people, young and old, who were deeply impressed with Fini Melieli’s voyage and speed, averaging over 30 miles per day.  With every enthusiastic exclamation upon seeing the turtle-tracking map, I feel the mounting momentum for Palauans to become better stewards for these endangered, charismatic sea turtles that share their waters and beaches.

Sarah Klain was a 2005-07 Peace Corps volunteer in Palau, working for the Marine Turtle Conservation & Monitoring Program of the Palau Bureau of Marine Resources. To hear her read an earlier version of this essay, go to http://www.peacecorps.gov  Further information on sea turtle satellite tracking worldwide is available at http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/.


Copyright 2008 The Author. All rights reserved.