My family was on a reunion vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii at a resort with a pretty lagoon maintained for the guests, complete with a waterfall and rentable kayaks. It was crowded with swimmers and paddlers and, remembering back, it’s a wonder how sea turtles ever desired to hang around in this man-made coastal nook (they were free to leave and not captive).
I vividly remember: my mom taking a break and watching our belongings on the beach while my dad, sister, and I continued to snorkel. Just eight years old, I was only starting to get comfortable snorkeling with the large mask, breathing through a rubber tube and heavy flippers on my feet. Up to this moment, I had never been brave enough to venture away from my parents’ side to take in the sights of colorful tropical fish. With growing confidence, I did not know exactly where my sister and dad were, but did not worry.
There were two large green sea turtles about 15 feet under the water next to the artificial waterfall. Gathered around were a dozen snorkelers admiring the slow moving creatures. I, myself, stayed well away while I watched. Although slow, they looked bigger than me, so I gave them ample room.
Done gazing at the sea turtles after several minutes, I flap my clumsy flippers and feel them connect with something hard. I know I’m nowhere near rocks or the ground and, mind you, this lagoon is attached to a resort and has an unreasonably high density of people and paddling boats. I thought I kicked a fellow snorkeler, in which case I should apologize. Or maybe I kicked a kayak, in which case I should make sure I wasn’t about to get whacked with a paddle by an inattentive tourist.
I turn around. And right behind me I see the hulking, scaly legs and shell of the biggest turtle I have ever seen, far closer than I ever wanted to be. I. Freaked. Out.
From the beach, my mom recalls hearing a garbled scream explode from my snorkel and looking up to see me breach out of the water like a humpback as I blasted my way back to safety on land. She likes to say I walked on water that day and I will never forget the ninja turtle that snuck up on me and taught me to always respect ocean creatures’ space.
It took years after that traumatizing experience to tolerate being in the water with a sea turtle without being anxious the whole time. When I was fourteen and living with my family on our forty-foot sailboat, I finally put my trauma to rest getting to know both the land tortoises of the Galapagos Islands and the friendly, commuting sea turtles (pictured above) who passed our anchored boat each day.
Author: Brooke Winslow, Cora Ball co-inventor