The Day Tutuwalu Visited Yadua
The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys Coriacea) also known as the lute turtle or in Fijian as Tutuwalu can grow up to three meters long and weigh a ton or as much as a small car, was spotted by islanders as they scuba dived for beach-de-mer on May 8.
Special Half Hour
“I thought it was a giant stingray because it was unlike anything I had ever seen before,” Atama Ravulo said.
“It was amazing to observe, 30 meters down in the deep blue.”
Coincidently, Josua Muakula, a turtle monitor, was Atama’s buddy diver on that seemingly magical day.
In the deep, the two divers just looked at each other and back at the giant reptilian that swam between them.
And as the leatherback ascended, Muakula followed it to the surface.
“I couldn’t even see the bottom of the boat, this turtle was so big and as it hit the surface it just floated near the front of our outboard,” Muakula said.
The diving outing came to a standstill, as the divers in the outboard stared, transfixed by the leatherback.
For Muakula the leatherback or Vonu Dakulaca is that rare find. As a turtle monitor, Muakula learns about all the different sea turtle species that forage in the world’s oceans but so far at Yadua he has only witnessed green and hawksbill turtles.
According to fisheries records the last reported leatherback sighting in Fiji waters was back in1970 off Kia island in the northern division.
There have been anecdotal observations over the years, but no official records have been kept.
“To see it for real was just special,” Muakula said.
“You learn so much about this amazing turtle, the most unique of the turtle species and after years of doing turtle monitoring work, it was a rewarding sight.
“We tried to catch it so that we could tag it but the sea was just a bit rough and half hour later it dived and was gone.”
A Unique Deep Diver
Of all the turtle species, the leatherback makes the deepest dives, even deeper than many whale species at depths of 1,280 meters.
Its anatomical characteristics make this turtle specially adapted to feeding in the colder waters of the Atlantic Ocean where they prey on jellyfish, unlike other sea turtles.
With a tear drop shaped body, Tutuwalu is reportedly the fastest reptile on the planet, moving through the oceans propelled by its gigantic flippers, at speeds of more than 30 kilometers per hour.
And unlike other turtle species it doesn’t have a hard outer shell, which is composed of a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin, strengthened by thousands of tiny bone plates that makes it look "leathery."
This ancient creature owes its name to its shell.
Not Since the 1970s
The last official recorded sighting of the Tutuwalu was two decades ago.
“That’s how rare it is but it used to be one of the turtle species frequently spotted in Fiji dating back to the sandalwood days,” Sunia Waqainabete said.
“It may have been driven out by overharvesting.”
Waqainabete is the chairperson of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas Network.
“It’s quite a find and can be viewed as plus for the work of conservation because we are beginning to witnesses marine resources that had disappeared returning to our shores,” he said.
“What we are doing is not being in vain but is bearing impact.”
For the turtle monitors, seeing the leatherback brought to life all the images they had sighted of this unique turtle specie during turtle monitors workshops held with the Marine Species team from WWF South Pacific.
Pita Qarau, leading the turtle conservation drive on Yadua island said the leatherback sighting was a flag raising of sorts because it renewed passion and pushed turtle monitoring efforts to another level.
“When you see such things, you know that the heavens are smiling down on your efforts and you know in your heart that you are doing the right thing,” he said.
Turtle conservation work began on Yadua Island in 2010 with the setup of the Dau Ni Vonu network that is coordinated by the WWF South Pacific Marine Species Program.
Since then increases have been noted in the number of turtle nests and nesting sites, as islanders have committed to a no-take approach and abstinence from turtle meat and eggs, protecting sites from poachers and coastal erosion.
Turtle monitors are actively involved in monitoring hatch rates and keeping seagrass beds healthy with beach cleanups.
Tutuwalu has long gone from Yadua but this turtles story continues to entertain the tanoa sessions, mesmerise island children and keep conservation spirits alive.