Taking time for turtles

There’s something… really big in the water,” came an excited call from one of our team members. Running to the back of the boat, I saw her, our symbol of safe passage. Contrasting with the deep blue of the surrounding sea, the whale’s belly appeared to radiate ultraviolet light as she rolled playfully, just off the stern of our overloaded charter vessel.

We carried a month’s supplies and a team of seven, as part of a research expedition to study sea turtles with Rarotonga-based Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI). We could hardly wait to meet our unique Polynesian hosts and explore the vast turquoise lagoon of our remote destination.

We were sailing to Palmerston Island, the only true atoll in the southern Cook Islands. It lays approximately 500km northwest of Rarotonga and is sparsely populated; only 30-50 residents are on the island at any given time. With less than one square mile of total landmass, there is no runway. There are also no stores, eateries, hotels, or hospitals. The island hadn’t even seen a supply ship in over ten months and because of limited communication, we weren’t even sure they knew of our imminent arrival.

But at dusk, almost three days after leaving Rarotonga, we anchored. It was too late to navigate a dinghy through the narrow passage in the reef to the islets—or motu—to get acquainted with our home for the next four weeks. Papa’a, or folks of European descent, have been welcomed on passing boats for over a century, but it’s uncommon for teams to stay for long periods, as we planned.

We had the islanders’ special permission, along with research permits, a little grant funding, transportation, a keen sense of adventure, and most importantly, time.

First discovered by Captain James Cook in 1774 on a passing voyage, the island was named after Lord Palmerston. Almost a century later, in 1863, an English barrel maker and ship’s carpenter named William Masters settled on Palmerston with his two Polynesian wives. After adding a third wife to the mix, three distinct Marsters (as the name is now spelled) family lines were born, creating governance as colorful as their history. And because of the unique settlement by William Marsters, the first language of the island is English, rather than Cook Islands Maori.

I struggled to keep my excitement at bay as night quickly fell. The scenery was exactly what I’d imagined of a remote atoll in the South Pacific, with the moonlit glow of breaking waves misting silhouettes of densely packed palm trees on a flat horizon. There were no car headlights. No signs, streetlights, or flickers from airplane wings soaring above. Just a blanket of stars, a few planets, and the single light from our mast swaying back and forth with the gentle rocking of the sea.

After months of planning and anticipation, we had arrived. I couldn’t wait to get ashore and settle in. * The bell began to ring in rapid succession, marking the day’s first church service. Mama Aka, one of the few elderly women on Palmerston, led the congregation into a polyphonic hymn, sung in Cook Islands Maori. Her voice was indistinguishable as it traveled through the pre-dawn light and ricocheted around the rusty, corrugated steel walls of our island abode: an open room with four beds and a concrete floor, which housed our seven-person research team and all of our supplies.

I gradually awoke, fumbled for the opening in my mosquito net, and tiptoed my way past friends who managed to sleep through the joyous crescendo of the local men singing “heyyyyy-yah-HEY!”

It was Wednesday, day 10 of 30. The local islanders were devout Christians. Church services also happened on Friday mornings and three times on Sunday, a day of strictly enforced quietude where no working, playing, or even swimming was allowed. Our team learned to really love Sundays. We vowed to try to keep the tradition when we returned to our busy lives.

It had rained hard last night and I wondered how Tina, a photographer and coral reef biologist, fared in her hammock under the ramshackle gazebo near the water. She wanted the quintessential rustic island experience and chose to sleep outside. I was ready for breakfast. Crossing the wet, cardboard footpath which connected our sleeping quarters to the kitchen, through the remains of the far wall I saw our Chief Scientist sitting quietly near a coconut palm, the steam from his instant coffee getting lost in his long, grey beard. He was always the first one up.

With the morning sun beginning to cast pink blankets over the meticulously raked, white sand that surrounded us, the gentle humming of the generator could be heard in the distance. The island had a limited diesel supply and could only afford power for 6-10 hours per day. Cargo ship delays are not uncommon in the outer islands of the Cooks and how well the locals adapted surprised me. They planned well, rationed everything, and shared with each other without question, even chores.

We had the opportunity to rebuild the school roof one day during an island “working bee” where everyone on the island participated—everyone. Assisting your neighbors on Palmerston wasn’t a subtle suggestion or the mark of an overly kind person; it was a way of life.

Despite cargo delays, no one seemed too bothered about dwindling food supplies, they would never starve with a lagoon full of fish and coconuts in the trees. In fact, we were often greeted with fresh donuts and cakes from our generous neighbors.

Diesel was the main worry for more than one good reason. Before supply ships were scheduled to arrive, most freezers were stacked with tightly wrapped fillets of parrotfish, the community’s primary export. The power supply was just enough to keep fillets frozen if doors were kept tightly shut during off hours. As razor blades dulled and beards grew, life continued at the island’s meaningful pace. There was no choice but to relax and adapt to the idiosyncrasies of life on this remote atoll.

*

The rising sun and roosters caused the rest of the group to stir. With our daily routine now fairly well defined, we inhaled our breakfast, slathered on sunscreen, and readied the research gear for another day searching for sea turtles under the warm South Pacific sun.

We walked barefoot down the sand road to the lagoon and in a human chain, loaded our gear. We pushed off while the sun was still low so that David, one of our local research assistants, could spot the numerous, expansive coral heads that peppered all 7km across the lagoon. In a borrowed aluminum boat, we wanted to take every precaution not to run it aground. A few coconuts bobbed along in our wake. The color of the lagoon changed from turquoise to violet-blue as we passed through deeper water.

“Turtle!” yelled Jason, our bearded Kiwi captain who took a month-long vacation from his teaching duties to experience life on this remote atoll, researching sea turtles. He quickly put the engine at idle, and as quietly as possible we floated on the glassy lagoon; equal parts savoring the tranquility of the moment and observing the creature, whose head was poking out for a breath.

We sputtered slowly toward Tom’s motu, whose uninhabited, white sandy beaches were the definition of desert island dreams. Today, we would be surveying the paradisiacal island for sea turtle tracks and signs of nesting. If any nests were found, we’d mark them with a GPS, a tree branch, and a piece of duct tape from the roll which now lived around my bicep. The oldest ones would be excavated to help us calculate hatchling (baby turtle) success rates.

The turtle work was repetitive and tiring, but rewarding. We spent the mornings circumnavigating motu and digging up nests, sometimes until our fingernails bled; the entire time working alongside research assistants from the island who were eager to share their local knowledge.

Afternoons were much more enjoyable to me, we snorkeled large sections of the lagoon searching for sea turtles, identifying various habitats and of course, getting excited by the curious sharks. When it came time to rest, we would excitedly wade in the crystal-clear shallows of the lagoon or eat lunch under the shade of a pandanus tree, never forgetting how lucky we were to be here. Not only because were felt as if we’d arrived in paradise and hit the pause button on the “real world”, but because we were welcomed into a tight-knit community—something that needed to be experienced to be fully understood and appreciated.

Thank you to the wonderful people of Palmerston for the warmth of your hospitality.

Where main street meets the sea
Snorkelling along the reef
Checking turtle nests
A baby turtle
Preparing research notes
Beach on Palmerston Island
Our research encouraged school children