Friday, November 13, 2009

Flying with Turtles

That story about the chiropractor and the sea turtle (and the kangaroo, and the sharks…) reminded me of something. The chiropractor said he’d been swimming there for years, and had no idea there were sea turtles. (And we already know how observant he is…) But it was in almost exactly that same spot—just a little south of Cairns—that I encountered my first sea turtle while diving.

I’d had a tĂȘte a tĂȘte with a couple of turtles  a year or two before, but that was swimming just off the beach on Grand Cayman.

This time we were underwater, maybe around 25 feet or so, when a big green sea turtle came right up to us for a thorough look.

I had to remind myself to breath. My friend D. next to me, squeezed my hand so hard that my fingers went a little numb. Having decided that we looked ok, I guess, the turtle turned slightly and floated off,  very unconcernedly. Went paddling slowly, peacefully along, checking out the occasional interesting rock, nosing into crevices or along the sand, then popping up to the surface for a breath of air.

The three of us, hand in hand, followed along behind.

Scuba diving is like flying. You know, those dreams where you soar over the landscape like a bird? Just like that. Completely suspended, completely weightless. You can turn in any direction with just a thought, stand on your head, balance on a finger, tumble in space like a happy seal, or just drift on the current, watching the whole world go by beneath you.

And the coral gardens where we were in the protected Frankland Islands National Park near the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, are some of the “most untouched, most pristine coral reefs” in the whole world.

It was magical. An effortless flight over an underwater garden teeming with life, and light and color. With our own private turtle tour guide, one who seemed determined to take us to all the best spots.

Twice, when we slowed down or veered away to look at something else, the turtle CAME BACK to see what was taking us so long, and hung around until he was sure we were following safely behind again. (“We’re swimming, we’re swimming…”) All he needed was a red umbrella.

At one point, another turtle came up to see what was going on. He’d been following us for a while, pretending complete indifference, but edging closer and closer all the time. “Our” turtle, after one dismissive glance, ignored him.

(I keep saying him, but I really have no idea. I figure that’s a pretty personal question that only another turtle needs to ask.)

Eventually the other turtle just couldn’t stand it anymore. He came right up to us, and gave us a hard stare. A good going-over, first from one eye, then the other.  Turned to look at “our” turtle, watching, waiting nonchalantly, a little ways away. The erstwhile usurper shrugged and admitted defeat. Our turtle headed off again, confident of our unswerving loyalty.

The other one trailed along behind, kind of hanging around the edges for a while.

We continued on. I think D. and I would have followed that turtle forever, but at some point the dive master reminded us that we were running out of air.

It was an experience I’ll always remember. As will D. Maybe more about her another time. For now, though, you should know this:

D. grew up in an idyllic little seaside village in the south of England. And when she was nine years old, she was almost killed swimming in that sea when a boat ran over her.

She’d been afraid of water ever since. Wouldn’t go in more than about waist-deep and never, NEVER put her face under the surface.

But she’s an wonderful friend.

It was my birthday, and she’d arranged this incredible surprise.

We met up in Cairns. She came up just for the long weekend; I was going to stay on for another couple of days, make my way up the coast to Port Douglas and the rain forest, then across to Alice Springs and Uluru (Ayers Rock); and eventually all the way to Perth on the other side.

It was June. “Winter.” A National Holiday in Australia—turns out the Queen of England celebrates the same day as I do. A gray, misty morning and the entire town deserted. Or dead. A battered little van—I don’t remember if it was actually a VW, but certainly the size and shape familiar to anyone who’s grown up near the ocean—picked us up from the ‘hotel’ (a generous turn of phrase) and headed out into the fog.

The driver was in on it.  Wouldn’t tell me where we were going. (I’ve had that experience once or twice before. This time it wasn’t as scary. Much.) We drove south for a while, on deserted, increasingly smaller, and bumpier roads. Stopped at a rickety wooden dock on a big, green murky river. Were told to get out. (OK, right there it got a little scarier.) Led onto a boat, which immediately headed downstream, through a dark green tunnel of giant, overhanging mangrove trees, standing knee-deep on long, strange roots like grasping fingers. We kept our eyes peeled for ‘crocs.’ Saw a couple, too…

Then suddenly the trees parted, blue sky and the wide blue Pacific opened up in front of us, and we headed out across open water towards the Great Barrier Reef.

We didn’t have to go far. Across crystal-clear water to a beautiful bay. Tea and ‘biscuits’ and sandwiches. Sunning, replete and happy on the deck above water so clear we could see the ocean floor twenty feet below, teeming with fish, and bright-colored corals, and giant clams in day-glow colors.

And then the cute little blonde surfer dude—who turned out to be a Dive Master—asked us if we were ready to go diving.

And more than anything in the world I wanted to say yes.

I said no.

Diving is serious business. I would never try to ‘convince’ anyone to dive who didn’t want to. And I knew D. didn’t want to. And honestly, I would have been perfectly happy just swimming and sunning. Was absolutely thrilled when D. declared herself mentally and physically prepared to try snorkeling.

It would have been a wonderful afternoon.

But the Dive Master was cute. And determined. And blonde (did I mention that already?) And had that ridiculous accent. And D. was always a bit of a pushover for the attention of cheeky, blonde, flirtatious males.

And he convinced her to try diving—something I never would have attempted. I even tried to talk her out of it—it terrified me that she might be doing something she really didn’t want to. But she’d somehow crossed a line. She felt safe—with me, with him. As safe as she could. She thought it was time.

I was already Certified. She hadn’t been in water much deeper than her waist in twenty years. Dive Master Dave (or whatever his name was) did that unconscionable thing that Dive Masters do in resorts all over the world—he waved his hands in the air a little, declared her ‘Resort Certified’ and started laying out gear.

I was beginning to regret those biscuits.

(But watching him strip down for the wetsuit wasn’t  bad. D. did rub off on me, a bit, at the time.)

(Come to think of it, if she lived any closer she’d probably have me married off by now, too.)

So the three of us went diving. Hand-in-hand, like schoolchildren, D. in the middle, and the two of us on either side.

And a big green sea turtle came right up, and welcomed us to his world.

It just doesn’t get much better than that.

Much later, when we finally had to say goodbye to our turtle, and come up for air, it was to a full-fledged barbeque feast, on the pristine white sands of an uninhabited tropical island.


It was as much fun as it sounds. Maybe more.

It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. And certainly one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had.

It’s a special memory for both of us. The next time I saw D., almost a month later back in Sydney, we’d both gone out in the meantime—unbeknownst to each other—and  bought each other a token to remember the experience by. We exchanged the boxes—one a silver sea turtle charm, and the other a silver sea turtle key ring. To remember forever.

As if we could forget flying with turtles.