Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Partly Cloudy, with Turtles

Hanauma Bay is, not to put too fine a point on it, a circus. After breakfast, we showed up at the Kuhio Avenue bus stop only to be informed by a guy with a schedule that we'd missed the bus by fifteen minutes, and that it only runs once an hour (this last part I knew, and it's odd, since this is one of the most popular routes on the island). He offered us a $5 van ride, so we took it.

When we got there, we had to wait for half an hour on line to buy tickets. Then we had to wait in another line for ten minutes to watch the mandatory nine-minute orientation video, which reminds everyone not to touch coral or other marine life and also not to feed any of the critters.

Then we finally tramped down to the beach. It's indeed very pretty, but already looked like Coney Island on July 4. Blankets, blankets everywhere. We dumped our stuff off to the side, and then I went to ask a lifeguard where to see turtles.

"Out," he said, waving past the breakwater. "Anywhere out there."

"Is it safe to swim out there?"

He thought about this. "Well, right now there's a strong current that could pull you out. But if you wait a few hours, the tide will be coming in, which means that current will be going in the other direction."

Good enough. We snorkeled a bit; we saw larger fish than we have in Waikiki, but also fewer. Fish were far outnumbered by flailing tourists. (As a flailing tourist myself, I mean this in the nicest possible way.) Also, low tide meant it was shallow, which made not getting scraped by coral a particular challenge. Every time I touched coral I thought guiltily, "I'm committing genocide!" since the video had emphasized that even if coral seems like dead rock, it's alive and fragile.

When Gary and I were both above water, I suggested that we hike up to the snack bar for lunch and then come back down in the afternoon to find turtles. He agreed. But the main snack bar was closed, and the hotdog vendors didn't take plastic, and we'd used up half our cash on the van ride. (Note to self: always carry lots of cash on Oahu.) We had enough money for one measly hotdog each, but it was better than nothing.

Back down to the beach. I found another lifeguard and asked if conditions beyond the breakwater were better now. He said he wouldn't advise it unless we were strong swimmers. I don't think I'd match a lifeguard's estimate of a "strong swimmer," and Gary -- who spends far less time in water than I do -- was even less confident. "Okay," I told Gary. "So we're giving up on the turtles and just looking for fish."

In the meantime, it had been raining on and off.

Somewhat disconsolately, we geared up and headed back into the water. At least the water was deeper now. Just let me see a turtle, I prayed wistfully as I swam towards the coral. If I only see a turtle, this fiasco will be worth it.

As soon as I reached the nearest coral formation, I saw two turtles, contentedly feeding. Gary and I happily hung above them for several minutes, watching them eat. I watched one of them come up to the surface for air. They seemed completely untroubled by our presence; I noticed that at least one of them was tagged, which meant they'd been handled by humans before, but I carefully tried to keep several feet of distance. Then, feeling generous, I popped my head above water and let some nearby snorkelers know that we'd found turtles.

The area was immediately mobbed, and the water became an impenetrable whirl of fins. What had I been thinking? Feeling less generous, I followed Gary as he swam away, but at some point I noticed a third turtle and peeled away to watch it (breaking the "always snorkel with your buddy" rule, since Gary was ahead of me and hadn't seen the latest critter).

A male tourist several feet away from me had seen the turtle too. He started hollering for his wife. "Oy, Ellie, over here! There's a turtle over here!" I understood that: I'd have hollered for Gary, too, if he hadn't already seen turtles.

But when Ellie arrived, she touched the turtle with her fin -- by mistake, I believe -- and it reacted by swimming away quite quickly, with Ellie and spouse in close pursuit. Then I saw the husband reach out and touch the turtle.

Hello! What part of "don't touch the turtles" don't you understand? What part of "endangered species protected by law" don't you understand? What part of "$5,000 fine for harrassing this animal" don't you understand?

I lost it. I stuck my head above the water and screamed at Ellie and Hubby, who were now also above the water, "Don't touch the turtle! That's illegal! Leave that turtle alone! Do not harrass that turtle!"

They didn't turn to face me. I'm sure they thought I was a crazy person. By the hunched set of their shoulders as they paddled away again, they might have been apologetic; more likely, they were just annoyed.

I was furious. I went ashore and vented to a lifeguard, who told me that I'd done all I could do, and then helpfully added that turtles bite when they're mad. Forgive me, Dear Readers, but I confess to hoping that Ellie's Spouse got bitten. Grrrrrr. By their accents, I think they were Aussies: just goes to show that Americans aren't the only ugly tourists in the world.

But my wish was answered: I saw turtles, and Gary did too, for the first time ever. Waiting for the bus back to Waikiki, I asked him what adjectives he'd use to describe them. "Graceful," he said. "Primordial. Eternal."

I told him that I'd add "Serene," and he agreed.

We love turtles. Seeing the turtles definitely made the expedition worth it!

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