Salt Water and Sea Turtles

A soft pull or a gentle tug. That’s how to get your snorkeling partner’s attention. Something more dramatic could mean a spinning propeller is bearing down on you. This was a hard yank. I turn to Amy on my left and she’s pointing down and there, twenty feet below us, effortlessly gliding through the blue, is a…

an aptly named vessel for this essay

A journey, a quest, a goal. How do we define our many stated objectives of life on this planet? We want security, a meaningful occupation, strong healthy children, a handsome roof over our insured heads. In the space between those lofty, concrete goals we make room for dreams, ethereal pots of coin at the end of our rainbows. Mine have shifted with the years, the tides, the bikes I’ve owned, the friends I’ve made, the people I’ve influenced. Hers have been more delicate. Like lingering scents from a favorite perfume, once briefly sampled then kept safe for another day, another time. Often our well-planned adventures have been fashioned by those scents. Our itineraries have occasionally felt like a Jenga puzzle secured by that one thing: a detour for a famous sandwich, a switchback to a memorable vista, an hour at that one museum, for that one painting. Some have been successful, all were memorable. An adult sea turtle in salt water? That dream has been just out of her grasp as all those moving parts are out of her control. An afternoon at an aquarium with a sea turtle rehabilitation facility is easily conjured. Plan the weekend, save the money, make the reservations, buy the tickets. Observing a certain animal in its natural habitat, well now we’re going to need all of the above plus a whole lot of luck, plus the right weather and maybe a few pieces of specialized equipment and it still may not be enough. One may read all the books but good luck getting that elusive animal to read the same book.

preparing to sail

Over the years a little slice of our summers has been spent on the shores of a few South Carolina barrier islands. Fripp, Pawley’s, Edisto, Harbor, and Hunting have all offered their sea turtle nests and the possibility of a late-night hatching. It’s easy to schedule that visit, challenging to be in the right place at the right time. Those baby turtles hatch courtesy the warmth of the Carolina sand and their own timetable. We’ve spent many nights and early mornings walking those shores in search of a hatching nest and her only success was watching a few stragglers clamber to the water, holding one briefly with the encouragement of a park ranger. “One day I’ll watch hundreds of baby turtles emerge from the sand then skitter their way into the surf.” Like a gentle saltwater breeze that never quite finds a sail, that was and is one of those softly scented, elusive dreams, always remaining just beyond her grasp.

headed to the reef

As we simmered plans for our sabbatical to Belize and its many Central American aromas, she was teased by that one sea turtle. We both imagined it, knew it was a possibility, performed our due diligence. One morning, a month prior, she recounted a vision. She was in the water with a brilliant collection of animated fish and coral of all colors and through it swam a large turtle. No words were spoken, just a late-night vision of the sea and its life. Were these wispy tendrils a premonition of what was to come? Here in this small country with its Caribbean border we’ve met many divers and swimmers. And she’s peppered each with that question of “Have you ever seen a sea turtle?” Most have replied negatively. One dive master told her:
“Oh, that’s a tough one, they’re very elusive and live a solitary existence.”

How poetic for such a celebrity of an animal. You see, sea turtles can be seen readily across the Caribbean, on postage stamps, logos for bars, kites and clothing, ice cream shops and sailing ships. Indeed, while visiting the Bahamas she was teased by their presence at every turn and our dives were filled with spectacular sights, just no sea turtles. Perhaps here in this small country with its massive coral reef, her sail would find that breeze? On December 31st, we received an invitation from our friend Tammy. One of her catamarans was short a few guests and would we like to sail tomorrow, the first day of the new year?

Eddie the competent first mate of catamaran Miss Faith

What better way to spend the first day of 2021 than meeting new people, sailing across sparkling water, and swimming across a coral reef? That day we were certain to do our yoga and drink our water. All the better to enjoy our dive and give her a sense of preparing. The first of January dawned gusty, the wind raced across our island, loosening every tree limb and bit of sand in its path. Sleeping to sunrise wasn’t to be, the trees of our island home spent their early hours scratching and squeaking against our roof. The saltwater breeze was calling to her, urging her awake, finding its purpose. On our sail we met new friends, from Houston, Kazakhstan, Guatemala, and Belize and only one had seen a sea turtle on a previous dive, on an island far away from this one. Our boat’s sails strained against the wind as we kept the reef on our starboard and fingers crossed.

About an hour later we anchored near another boat, geared up and splashed in. Swimming near a reef means the current will be strong and the day’s wind added to that. Right away the waves pushed us around and we bounced off one another like ping pong balls in a sink while the wind stole our words. Eddie’s “Follow me!” was easily understood. Ten minutes later I felt that yank on my right shoulder and now she’s pointing, trying to yell underwater. It’s her turtle, the one from her dream, the one she held so long ago, the injured one she sponsored at the South Carolina aquarium, the one that’s spent the last fifteen years evading her. And it’s gliding effortlessly through the water, underneath her, gently encouraging her to follow. We briefly comply. Sea turtles may lumber on sandy shores, they are greyhounds in the water. He’s nimble and fast, gracefully navigating the Mumbai-ish traffic of this reef. His (hers?) shell glistens and shines as shafts of sunlight momentarily reflect his beauty towards us. Then he slipped away into the sparkle of the deep water. She reaches out to me and holds my hand, I squeeze back and even in this cool water, the warmth between us is noticeable. She has found her turtle, spent a fleeting moment in its company, marveled at its presence and wished it a safe journey.

photo courtesy Tamara Sniffin, My Beautiful Belize

Sea turtles? We know sea turtles. They’re very elusive, prefer a solitary life and for a brief moment, we were fortunate enough to be in the company of one.

~ John

You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, (former) tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.



8 Responses

  1. Loved reading about the sea turtles! One of our daughters-in-law and our son have a summer home on Seabrook Island and she’s on the turtle patrol there so it’s a very interesting subject. Glad you get to see them so much down there.

  2. Wonderful to see the sea turtle! I am glad there was no sea turtle soup recipe to go along with the post!

  3. I enjoyed the story. Are you guys scuba diving, snorkeling or snuba diving?

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