Our kayak captain, pointed down into the water with surprising excitement, considering he must take tourists to swim with turtles hundreds of times a month.
Snorkel and mask on, I leaned backwards off the boat and felt the warm water wrap around me. I turned over, looked down at the green tinged sand deep beneath me and searched for a turtle.
My first experience swimming with turtles occurred in Malaysia just off the Perhentian islands in 2009. Up till that point I had never been in crystal tropical water or seen in person the incredible colourful creatures that call it home. I was in awe looking down at clownfish, rainbow fish and squid all zipping between homes of brightly coloured coral. Before we set out on my first snorkel experience, the owner of the beachside hostel gathered everyone together for a briefing. He was a big Malaysian Muslim man and the hostel and boat was his family operation.
“Rule number one!” He boomed, “Do not harass the turtles!”
We all laughed, somewhat nervously.
“Do not touch them, do not swim down to them, do not annoy them, if they swim up for air, fine, but give them space”.
“Rule number two!” He continued, “do not step, touch, damage or move coral, shells or sand”.
“Rule number three!” He banged his fist on the table for emphasis. “No littering”. I liked this guy, you knew where you stood and you could tell that he cared.
My attention was drawn to a turtle gliding across the seabed and I found myself switching back to the present. I knew it would surface for air eventually, and that a good photo would be the result, so I contentedly followed its journey across the seabed. Minutes later another crossed its path, a little larger, with small blue fish following along beneath it. I switched and took up the chase. Except it turns out that turtles can hold their breath for longer than I expected. Gradually I found myself swimming deeper and deeper, further away from shore and the rest of the swimmers, so I made the decision to turn back, content that I saw two turtles, even if it was not up close.
Just as I was nearing the kayak our guide shouted again “Turtle!” And pointed down. It took me a few seconds to see it as it was swimming with some coral as a backdrop, but there, almost below me, was a massive turtle. I followed, and within minutes it gradually began to rise for air. I made sure my camera was on and then watched as it surfaced no more than a meter away from me. It seemed to stare at me for a moment through its black left eye before raising it’s head, taking a gulp of air and plunging down below the surface.
Turtle spotting complete, it was time to return to our small boat. “Stand on the coral”, our captain explained after some in the group had difficulty climbing aboard.
I thought back to the big Malaysian boat owner, he would not have been impressed.