From the moment I watched an Olive Ridley nest in Nicaragua – I was hooked. Sea turtles have become my favourite underwater obsession.
Sea turtles can live for over a hundred years. They swim with the current, some of their nesting patterns are still mysterious to us, and they can dive deeper; holding their breath for an extended period of time beyond any human freediver’s capacity.
I spent 10 days in Gili Air, an island off the shores of Lombok, Indonesia – only an hour and a half on the fast boat from Bali. Part of the three Gili islands, each one offers a different atmosphere for tourists. If you want to party head to Gili Trawangan. For peace and quiet – Gili Meno is your place. Craving a mix of party and relaxation? Book a ticket to Gili Air.
I was told by a few people that sea turtles could be spotted off the shores of Air. But after a week of searching beneath the waves, I had no such luck. The coral around Gili Air appeared to be mostly damaged and bleached; a devastating result of climate change, irresponsible tourism, and overfishing.
On my last day in the Gilis, I woke up early and hopped on the public boat to Meno. I only had a few hours to spare; that afternoon I’d be taking a ferry back to Bali. The odds of swimming with sea turtles off Meno were much higher. At the very least I could check out Bolong’s Turtle Sanctuary, a small conservation centre on the beach that protects baby sea turtles.
After a sea turtle nests, the sanctuary collects the 50 – 150 eggs to protect them from nest robbers like humans or natural predators such as ghost crabs, cats, dogs, monitor lizards and more. The incubation period lasts about 2 months, depending on the sea turtle species. Once the turtles hatch at night, the sanctuary keeps them protected in small ponds for up to 8 months. When the young sea turtles are ready they release them into the deep ocean waters around Gili Meno. Baby sea turtles have many predators during the early stages of their lives – birds, large fish, and sharks. With a growing number of sea turtles endanger due to human activity like global warming, overfishing, and the development of beaches – the work of this sanctuary is more important than ever to the survival of sea turtles.
Well worth the stop – I could’ve spent hours photographing these little guys!
I wandered down the sandy road towards the Northern shore to find a good snorkelling spot. An Indonesian man, sitting on a chair on the side of the road stopped me. “Are you interested in a snorkelling trip?”
As a selfish lover of the ocean; I’m skeptical of snorkel tours. When I jump into those glorious waters, I want to feel like I have the entire underwater world all to myself. Snorkel tours are generally overcrowded. If it’s a snorkel hotspot, there’s usually a few tour boats flocked around the same location, at the same time.
Then I question the ethics of these tours. Are they eco-friendly? Do they remind people to not touch the reef or sea creatures? Despite this, every tour has that one clever person who doesn’t listen. They plant their two fins on the reef like it’s a launching pad – pretending they’re the rocket ship.
I get it. Some people haven’t learned that coral is a living organism not a rock (#grade6science). I wish these tours would give a better briefing and explain the implications to people. One brush with the coral can kill it. So as George Bluth Senior in Arrested Development would shout, “NO TOUCHING!”
I was on a mission that day…
“Will I see a sea turtle?”
“It’s guaranteed,” I decided to jump on board.
After a short boat ride, we arrived at Turtle City (not quite a city but more like an impressive underwater town). We geared up; fins – check, snorkel mask – check, underwater camera locked and loaded – check.
Our Indonesian guide jumped into the open water. He took one look at the bottom and shot his head up to announce, “Sea turtle! Big one!” I hustled to get in. Below the clear water, hanging out on the reef was a beautiful hawksbill sea turtle.
The hawksbill was about 20m deep. With no other freedivers around to look after my safety, I decided to hold off on plunging in to get a better look. Two scuba divers closely observed the sea turtle from the edges of the reef below. I could’ve filled a tank with envy.
Freediving consists of naturally filling your lungs with oxygen and diving into the depths on just one breath. There’s no tank of air or regulator to breath through. Just an eye mask, optional fins, and some goodwill. It’s considered to be an extreme sport. The current world record holder, Willian Trubridge, can dive to 122m in 4 minutes and 24 seconds. Pushing your limits underwater is addictive and may seem extreme at first. But once you get the hang of freedving, it can be the most relaxing and natural way to explore the underwater world.
On Koh Tao, an island off the eastern coast of Thailand, I trained with Apnea Total to learn the techniques of freediving and managed to reach a depth of 17m. But I was limited by a struggle to equalize my ears past 5m. The trick to equalizing is all about relaxing the entire body. One tense muscle can cause you trouble and use up your oxygen underwater; a necessity to hold your breath for longer and eliminate the pressure building up in your ears.
On Gili Air, I signed up for a coaching session with Freedive Flow (AIDA certified), where they preach relaxation underwater. For this irregular Yogi, that’s easier said than done. During the static lesson in the pool, I learned to hold my breath for over two minutes simply by chilling out. I knew I was capable of mastering equalization and hitting those deeper depths. Perhaps all I needed was the excitement of sea turtle.
As the sea turtle swam towards the surface, I lost my shit swimming past other snorkelers. Nearly getting punched, kicked, and knocked out by fins trying to get closer to the turtle for a photo.
Unfortunately, with the flock of tourists around, one guide was placing people’s hands on the turtle’s shell for a feel. I sounded like George Bluth Senior underwater, “NO TOUCHING!” I considered this to be an eco-crime. Despite how laid back we think sea turtles are (looking at you Disney and Dory), getting too close or touching a sea turtle can stress it the bleep out. How’s that for showing people its natural state?
The hawksbill drifted towards another turtle and for a few moments, they seemed to embrace. Whether it was friendly hello, an exchange of food, or something more; time seemed to slow down as they connected and circled around each other underwater.
The sea turtle continued further into the open water, away from the reef, and the snorkel boats.
Other snorkelers vanished but I continued to swim above the sea turtle. I was astonished by how it flowed through the water – carefree and chill-axed. I didn’t care if my snorkel boat left me stranded and I’d have to swim shore. I could’ve spent all day in this zen, swimming along with the sea turtle.
The sea turtle emerged towards the surface a few times, filling its lungs with air. As the turtle swam upwards, I dove downwards, meeting it halfway. I forgot all about equalizing or how deep I was diving – 5, 10, 15 meters? I pushed beyond my limits to capture these shots. Shrugging off the pressure in my ears that would’ve sent me back up the line during a training session. I found myself instinctively swallowing to equalize and holding my breath as long as possible.
The sea turtle emerged one last time for air before plunging deeper into the ocean. I watched as its figure vanished into the dark blue, reaching those deep depths more graceful than any human freediver. Why am I obsessed with sea turtles? They are ultimate freedivers; the cool, ancient explorers of the ocean. I wish I could be just like them. Able to live in the ocean for over a hundred years. To spent hours beneath the waves on just one breath and swim far distances beyond our own capabilities.
I swam back to the boat in a daze. There were a few tour boats around me and they all looked the same. I climbed the ladder, questioning if I had even boarded the right boat. As I sat down, I could’ve drowned my tour group with excitement, “Did you see the sea turtles? Everyone saw the sea turtles right?!”
We snorkelled different sites around the Gilis but nothing beat Turtle City. Sadly, as I’ve experienced in most places off the shores of mainstream Southeast Asia, the reefs were damaged and affected by coral bleaching. Maybe this is why I dislike snorkel trips – most people don’t seem to care. Even if the reef is their bread and butter and their livelihood depends on its health. Even if they’ve travelled halfway around the world and paid good money to experience this incredible underwater world in the first place.
I’ve made it my goal to document ecotourism or lack of it as best as possible. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s words and images that I hope say it all.
Looking for more turtle action? Stay tuned for my experience hatching and releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean in Kuta, Bali.
Can’t wait till then? Check out that time I ditched surfers for sea turtles in Nicaragua.