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The Fate of Leatherback Turtles in the Kei Islands, Moluccas

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21 November 2009 – Saturday

Today we were extremely happy in the morning and extremely sad by the afternoon.  We had a slow start leaving the house at 7am. For 2 long hours, we saw nothing. Eki was in fact close to cursing mode when we saw our first leatherback turtle at 9am. For the next 3 interactions, we had no luck. Yogi was not getting close to the turtle. It felt his presence and swam down. It was getting to be tiresome that I asked to go home by 11am but Yogi kept saying no, we had to keep trying.

No means no. So with engines off, we waited. The turtle was just in the area and when it finally surfaced, the guys paddled slowly. Yogi got into the water quietly from behind her and ducked dived silently. He finally got close enough to take a decent picture. When the turtle finally saw Yogi, she gave an alarmed dive and swam away. Eki was so very happy he jumped into the water hooting!

Finally a leatherback turtle underwater. Surprised at a human marine creature (Yogi) this large ancient mariner swam away with one flick of her giant flippers Finally a leatherback turtle underwater. Surprised at a human marine creature (Yogi) this large ancient mariner swam away with one flick of her giant flippers

Yogi came back saying that was a nice first attempt. Let’s look for more. So for the next hour, we followed the same tactic, paddling silently to the turtle from behind and Yogi sneaking up silently. The next interaction was even better.

Effortless and graceful underwater, this turtle made a quick pass enough for a photographEffortless and graceful underwater, this turtle made a quick pass enough for a photograph

The turtle this time was curious enough to come back from under Yogi, giving him ample snapping opportunity. Oh but it was a good third day!

By noon, when it was about time to move on back home, the crew said to go nearer the fishermen. When we were near the group of fishermen, we saw a marlin or a swordfish jump again and again out of the water, about 7 to 8 times.  Incredible.

Then we heard one of the fishermen in a dugout canoe shout the call  “Ubo ito bam datoo!” There was a commotion that a leatherback turtle was nearby.  We didn’t realize the men in the dugout canoe were leatherback turtle hunters until we saw their spear.

Leeatherback turtle huntersLeatherback turtle hunters

We photographed them and they circled our boat for the picture. Then they saw the leatherback and the hunt was on. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want this to happen and there was no way of stopping it. The canoe went near the leatherback and with one throw of the spear, the turtle was caught. Just like that. One throw. So easy.

With one  spear and a rope, this endangered species will soon become food for a villageWith one spear and a rope, this critically endangered species will soon become food for a village

Yogi kept telling me to switch off my emotions which was going haywire.  “Focus!” he demanded. “We must photograph this.” He was changing lenses for the underwater camera and told me to take topside photos.

No matter how emotionally disturbed we were, we could not pass judgement. The work of WWF in this community could be jeopardized should we have intervenedNo matter how emotionally disturbed we were, we could not pass judgement. The work of WWF in this community could be jeopardized should we have intervened

My thoughts were all over the place. Like most divers, or even other professional underwater photographers, we have never seen a leatherback turtle our entire lives — until now only because of this expedition. We saw leatherback mothers heave their way onto a beach in Jamursbamedi to lay their eggs. We saw baby leatherback turtles come out of the sand scampering to get to the water. We saw a baby swim. And today, Yogi saw and photographed an adult underwater! Under IUCN Red List, their conservation status is critically endangered. On a high nesting season, only 1,500 females come up to Jamursbamedi to lay eggs.

A very painful sight to see - we just hope this leatherback turtle didn't die in vain. May our pictures help with an educational campaign to stop their killingA very painful sight to see - we just hope this leatherback turtle didn't die in vain. May our pictures help with an educational campaign to stop their killing

The entire village came out for the slaughter. Everybody got a piece or two. Children brought home pieces, their parents came out with cooking pots, absolutely everyone got a share.

Her carapace measured 1.32 meters long and .92 meters wideHer carapace measured 1.32 meters long and 0.93 meters wide

I would say about 60 – 70 people were on the beach. So probably more than a hundred people would partake of our poor leatherback’s body, all the way to her blood.

During the slaughter, when all parts of her body were severed and taken out of her carapace, Yogi who was in the thick of things, motioned to me that her heart was still beating.

We went back to our village by 4 that afternoon. It was a sad day.

Yogi just said perhaps our pictures could somehow lead the killing to stop someday. We will try to help WWF make this happen . . .

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Comments


  • Marine Iguana

    What a tough story that must have been to tell. Very powerful pictures & words that I hope will make difference.

  • Niels

    What a sad story. I can really imagine the two of you being excited about taking pictures of this fascinating species and then being shocked by others hunting it down. Hope this can be stopped one day !

    Cheers,
    Niels

    P.S.: Still, the UW shots of the leatherback are great !

  • Heru Purnomo

    to help protect Leatherback Turtle, and doing campaign to all our fisherman in Indonesia, Pulau Mas will use Leatherback turtle and Hump Head Wrasse as our Fisherman Card Member picture. We try to do the best for protecting this dangerous species.

  • Lineke

    WOW, what a story … I hate unhappy endings! Keep up the good work and spirit Stella and Jurgen!

  • eka

    saya jaga penyu belimbing di Papua ( sorong ) mengapa mereka bunuhnya di Tual, berdasarkan tempat lahir. penyu belimbing adalah hewan asal sorong

  • http://alaslangit.blogspot.com franki

    Just translate the statement of eka a.k. Efraim Kambu , he was a monitoring officer for WWF Sorong and Protect the Leatherback nesting area at Jamursba medi Beach.

    “I Took care the Leatherback in Papua (Sorong) Why They Kill it at Tual, according to the birthplace, The Leatherback is The Animal which came from Sorong( Belong To Sorong)”.

    Franki Waroby
    Turtle Monitoring Coordinator
    WWF-Sorong
    Indonesia

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  • http://www.jurgenfreund.com Stella Chiu-Freund

    Just saw this article in All Voices about a positive effort happening in Kei Islands with leatherback turtles becoming Maluku’s Marine Ecotourism Icon. Our photograph may have helped this effort to happen in less than a year! Well done WWF Indonesia!
    http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/6391455-leatherback-turtles-malukus-marine-ecotourism-icon

  • http://banyangrove.blogspot.com/ Sachi

    That’s heartbreaking. I hope this comes to a stop soon.