Island of Smiles - Turtle Gulag
For several months I have been busy surveying an area for a new resort. During the last month we were looking for good dive sites but covered only 35% of the huge reef. Fantastic!
The company decided months ago to come here to invest. All the villages in the area are informed and happy. They are waiting for us. Their lives will change a lot. The land contract has already been negotiated and includes a lot to improve the daily livelihood of the villagers.
Potable water would be just unbelievable. There is none in the village - they have to go with Jerry cans to other islands. Several times I tried to find a spring. A fruitful spring is just 300 m from the beach in the lagoon, but it is salty as well. I truly hope to find a solution. This is very important to all of us. The state of health of most of the villagers is very bad. Potable water would be progress.
This time I am here to do mapping for a small airstrip. We are looking for a suitable area since we do not want to destroy the island. A professional survey team from Jakarta is with me. Tough guys – they have been working in the remotest places and just returned from the Aceh (Sumatra) jungle. For several weeks we will only have rice, noodles and fish - no fruits, no vegetables. The hygiene conditions are terrible, but we will have to stay for a limited time only.
Shadows are getting longer; children are playing, all over the place we hear loud voices, happy laughter and the cackle of chickens. ...somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. Far away from any town by 150 km.
It's late afternoon and time to have a bath with seawater. I’ve been used to it for a long time. My wife and I live in Irian Jaya (Papua). There is no luxury. Everything is reduced to the minimum. Car, television, refrigerator? No need! Currently I’m missing my wife. I haven’t seen her for six months already. She is taking care for our affairs in Papua. Hopefully next time she will be with me to visit this paradise.
After dinner friends come to visit. We chat enjoying coffee and cigarettes with cloves. We laugh a lot. Later we do a walk around the village. Everybody wants to chat. It’s very difficult for me to follow the conversation. During the past centuries many regional groups have arrived in this area and as a result there are five languages. In the enthusiasm of the talks they forget that I do not understand these languages.
A friend pulls at my sleeve. "Come. Let’s have a look at the south beach."
The beach is a lovely place with huts, boats, nets, fish traps. "I have to show you something! Just come, but don’t use your torch!" he says.
It is new moon and pitch-dark. What is it he wants to show? Why so mysterious?
I've never heard of it. Ah Penyu!!! Sea turtles!! At the beach? It is not the time for nesting. What is going on?
I follow my friend in pitch-dark night over rocks and through thorns. He must be crazy! Never ever are there sea turtles around! There is not even a sandy area!
Suddenly there is a breathtaking smell. Death!!
"You can switch your torch on“ commands my friend.
What I set my eyes on ties my tongue.
Dozens of sea turtles are in captivity in small rocky bays isolated from the sea by rocks and sticks and bound together by ropes!
Sea Turtles amidst dead companions
They are resting on the remains of other turtles that perished some time ago, lying exhausted among their recently dead companions of misfortune. All over the place are skulls, bones. I am paralyzed.
Sea Turtles amidst dead companions
Is this my paradise? Have my eyes been closed? I saw fishermen using bombs and poison. I’m trying to convince them, giving them information. But now I see this inconceivable misery just in front of me, right in my paradise!!!! I feel sick.
In the dark I can do nothing. Whatever I want to do, I have to think twice. This is Big Business. One or the other boss is in the village. I’m quite sure that they have the right people on their pay list. The villagers will be afraid and are not going to help. Even my companion is very much afraid. The devil must have been with him to show me something like this!
The "Orang Buleh" Takes Pictures
Next day the water is low. I’m taking my camera and leave for the beach. They have seen me doing photos many times before. The “Orang Buleh” (foreigner, white human) is taking pictures of everything.
"Where are you going?" they ask.
"I will walk. I want to make pictures!"
They think the Buleh must be stupid. Very soon it will be hot and he is walking in the sun. It is part of my plan. They must see me!
During low tide approach is easy. I take pictures of the huts, the boats and the children while I am strolling in the direction of the sea turtles. Very soon I reach yesterday evening’s place. Quickly I take some pictures and discover three more places where they are hiding turtles. Two of them are empty, only remains of perished sea turtles and the smell of cadavers. Photos I do in Auto-Mode, there is no time for nice pictures. I really do not know how I can do nice pictures of such a massacre. It’s not important at the moment. I want to free the creatures...as soon as possible.
Lies Could Lead to Disaster
I continue with my plan. Around noon I am back to the village. The people are already resting in the shade of their houses. Once again I consider my plan. If I am wrong it can end up in a disaster. The authorities are far away and almost nobody knows where I am. There is no communication system at all. My Sat phone has not worked for a long time.
First I have to see the Kepala Desa (Mayor). I show the photos.
"Where have you done these pictures? Where is the place?“ he asks.
I brief him in detail.
“Tidak bisa!” (impossible) he says. He is a good actor. I am sure he knows!
"What are you going to do?" Here we are!!
He suggests "You and me will free the turtles!“.
I reply "Susa! (difficulty) I have been sending the pictures and a report to Jakarta with the help of my laptop and Sat phone!”.
"That is not good."
I tell him "My friends in Jakarta are waiting for a solution."
Two lies in one! My Sat phone is not working and I do not know anybody in Jakarta to assist.
"If you do not release the turtles they will report this to the police! You have to free the turtles!" I say.
"You sent the pictures to Jakarta?"
I can see dismay in his eyes and reply "Yes".
"That is bad for my reputation and the Babinsa (local policemen) and the Bimas (local representative of the military)."
He is right, it is!
The "Report" to Jakarta
I explain that the people in Jakarta are waiting 24 hours for me to come up with the result. He the mayor, the Babinsa and the Bimas will set free the turtles and I will do new photos and a new final report. It's good for everybody involved.
"Yes, we will do so. You have to talk to the others."
I spoke with both of them. First dismay, they cannot believe this is happening, but at the end they make a decision. “Tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock we will release all turtles and you will make photos and a final report to Jakarta.”
Everything went very well and smoothly according to my plan. The mayor agreed to release the turtles and I still have my head on my shoulders.
During that afternoon I walked on an uninhabited island not far away. I suspect there are more hidden places. Now I know what to look for. I discover another place in a small rocky bay - very well camouflaged. I estimate 40-50 creatures are captured here.
I have to hurry. Ouickly I destroy the fence and remove the rocks. Some turtles are huge. It would take four men to take them out. I discover two species, the green one and the Hawksbill. Only one I can carry to the open water and she takes her chance for freedom immediately.
Freed turtle swims to escape
Such beautiful and amazing animals! I always enjoy them while diving. High tide is coming up and they can free themselves. I am happy the owner of the place has not shown up. There would have been no long discussion! At sunset I return to the village.
A Volunteer to Release More Turtles
"You had a visitor!"
I do not know him. If it is important he will come again. I do not wait long. A young man, obviously Chinese, shows up and asks "May I enter?" Of course he is welcome. What does he want?
Bapak Tenbo is quite well educated and during our talk I learn that he is also keeping 40-50 turtles for the Balinese trading place. He is afraid I will report him and offers the release of all his turtles. He asks me to make pictures as proof! That is acceptable to me.
Success. 130 - 150 Sea Turtles Released
Releasing a small one
My plan is a real success. Within a very short time 130 - 150 sea turtles are released and all the wrongdoers are panicking! It could not have gone better!
The villagers are enthusiastic! Nobody has dared to interfere before! The majority of the villagers do not agree with the bomb fishing, with the men using poison or with the turtle-catching strangers who come from other areas. But what can they do? They can not defend themselves. These people are powerful and the authorities are far away.
The villagers tell me "You also have to finish off the problem with the bomb and poison-using fishermen!".
But how? Is there any organization taking over? Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to help to protect this paradise, to help the fishermen protect their livelihood. Actually it is not my job. But closing my eyes? My wife and I are here because we love the country and its people - otherwise one should stay home. Everything is "susa“ - difficulty - everything is possible.
The country is huge and to control the remote areas is difficult for the government There is no reproach from my side. I want to help to support the existing good laws.
A paradise has to be guarded from being destroyed for the benefit of all these friendly, nice people. I want to help to built up their future, even though everything is “susa”.