Ancient Navigators of the Pacific
- Pacific Islands
- Personal Essay
Pacific islands resemble galaxies of stars awash in an immense space of ocean, when viewed on a map of the world. The isolation of each island resulted in the development of 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, the navigators kept sea turtles alive onboard for weeks, providing the sustenance necessary to reach the next island.
Only recently with new technology have the astounding navigational skills of sea turtles become apparent in the hundreds of turtles whose migrations have been tracked across the globe. My counterpart in Palau, Joshua Eberdong, traveled to the remote Merir Island on the rickety state boatAtoll Way. Working with the Sonsorol state governor and conservation officers, Joshua mounted a satellite transmitter on a nesting green turtle fondly named Fini Melieli (Lady of Merir). They radioed me at the office, telling me the global positioning system coordinates where they released her. Joshua and I received periodic "e-mails from our turtle," updating us with the latitude and longitude of Fini Melieli's progress plying the waters of the western Pacific. In 12 days, she swam more than 370 miles, from her nesting beach on Merir, Palau to the coast of West Papua, Indonesia. This is the first evidence of a turtle nesting in Palau, 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. Their progress was posted online atwww.seaturtle.org/tracking.
The satellite-tracking project grew out of community consultations with the rubaks of Palau—the older venerated men—who concurred that there are far fewer turtles now than when the men 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 turtle numbers. My counterpart, the leading Palauan expert on sea turtles, coordinates the program. Intimately knowledgeable about Palau's reefs, islands, and fieldwork methodology, Joshua applied for the assistance of a Peace Corps Volunteer with skills in geographic information systems (GIS). That person would support the work of the bureau and enhance efforts in turtle monitoring and data collection. I filled the position and helped Joshua communicate with a global network of turtle conservationists. I also taught database management, entered and managed GIS data, worked on grants, and conducted fieldwork.
When I surveyed beaches, tagged turtles, mentored high school interns, taught marine science classes at the community college, wrote press releases, and collaborated with local conservation nonprofits, I remained hopeful that Palau's turtle populations could persevere despite the threats to their survival. Around the world and as close as the neighboring island of Yap, distinct breeding populations have gone extinct. However, with focused education and enforcement programs, other turtle populations have rebounded in numerous locations, including Hawaii and several Caribbean islands.
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. My office was trying to emphasize their nonconsumptive value. Tourism is Palau's main source of revenue and scuba divers relish their encounters with resident hawksbills. Preserving marine biodiversity is essential to Palau's tourism-centered economy.
Sea turtles all over the Pacific face an ominous future and will likely go extinct without more action to protect turtle eggs, reduce harvest rates, and minimize turtle by-catch in the longline fishing industry. This technique uses short lines with hooks attached to a longer main line. The gear often catches and drowns sea turtles. Maintaining adequate nesting and feeding habitat is also essential. Joshua and I created maps of the location and frequency of turtles nesting at specific beaches. The maps have helped to prioritize conservation efforts in Palau.
To support sustainable change, I provided tools that helped Joshua bridge his traditional ecological knowledge with modern science. My counterpart no doubt developed his astute turtle-nest-spotting eyes by harvesting nests when he was younger. As one of the island's foremost fishermen and hunters, Joshua 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 .
Much like Joshua, other Pacific Islanders who consume turtles are beginning to see that these formerly ubiquitous animals face a serious danger of extinction, and that their survival depends on human intervention. Palauans are learning that these hardy reptiles belong 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.
I 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 updated and published biweekly in the local newspaper, creating interest and excitement around the island, since no one previously had known where Palau's turtles swam. Thanks to our grant from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Joshua already had plans to mount more transmitters after my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer drew to a close and I too traveled thousands of miles away from Palau.
Turning the tide on declining turtle populations necessitates changing people's hearts, not just their minds. I talked with many people, young and old, who were deeply impressed with Fini Melieli's voyage and speed, averaging over 30 miles a day. With every enthusiastic exclamation upon seeing the turtle-tracking map, I felt the mounting momentum for Palauans to become better stewards for these endangered, charismatic sea turtles that share their waters and beaches.