1987 / 6月
Arthur Jeng /photos courtesy of Arthur Jeng /tr. by Peter Eberly
As soon as I touched the cold morning seawater, the doubts and fatigue I had felt over the past few weeks suddenly vanished. And then I began to ponder what I had been through.
Maybe it had something to do with age and experience, but my idea of people had changed.
I'm a sea turtle, Chelonia mydas japonica to the scholarly, 90 cm. long, 60 cm. wide, and about 120 kg. in weight.
We've got plenty of spare time in the sea, an I do a lot of thinking while I'm drifting about. They say turtles have been around for some two and a half billion years and come in over 250 different species, ranging in size from 7 cm. long to 680 kg. in weight. . . . I wonder if their vision, hearing, and sense of smell are as good as mine? If they can see colors but are nearsighted like me? And if they like to think?
This April 18th I was drifting around thinking, when I dozed off and woke up caught in a net with a bunch of stupid fish. The fishermen gave out a shout when they saw me and started jabbering about how much they could fetch for me. Why, one old guy even cried out, "Turtle meat is tastier than steak!"
I had withdrawn into my shell in a panic and had to think of something fast. Then it came to me. I stretched out a front leg and flashed my stainless steel "lucky charm." A keen-eyed fisherman who spotted it said, "What's that?" After some discussion, they recognized that I was no ordinary sea turtle and shouldn't be "disposed of" quite so summarily.
This "lucky charm" of mine goes back a long ways. When I was young, some marine biologists from the University of Hawaii plucked me out of the sea near Hawaii and fixed a numbered tag on each of my front legs before letting me go. At the time, I was just glad I was still alive; I never realized these little tags would become my "lucky charms."
The fishermen didn't give up so easily, though. To find out my "market price," they called in a crustacean expert from Hengchun named Ch'en Heng-yu. He took one look at the English on the back of my tag, found out that the University of Hawaii was using me for research, and recommended that they let me go.
But the fishermen seemed to think that this only increased my market value, and they kept me in one of their houses to see what they could get. After a couple of weeks, they realized they were getting nowhere and cut a deal with Ch'en Heng-yu.
May 6th. That's a day I'll never forget, the day Mr. Ch'en drove me to his house, put me in a comfortable, aerated pool, and called up Kenting National Park Headquarters to ask them to write to the University of Hawaii about what had happened and to help him let me go.
The same day some local reporters turned up, and the next day my story and pictures were all over the papers. That evening a writer came in from a magazine in Taipei (he was really quick! I hate to think how long it would have taken me to crawl all that way!) and Mr. Ch'en explained my background this way:
"Sea turtles have a very slow growth rate. The marine biologists at the University of Hawaii marked 600 young sea turtles. They caught 70 of them a while later but most had hardly changed at all. They suspect it takes ten or twenty years for the turtles to mature, very slow when compared with most other animals."
He knew more about it than I did; at any rate, it seemed I was making some contribution to research!
He also said: "Sea turtles migrate, mostly from a fixed feeding ground to a place to lay eggs. Some turtles on the Brazilian coast set out in February for Asuncion Island, halfway to Africa and 1,600 km. away, where the females each lay dozens of eggs every twelve days until June, when they all swim back to Brazil. They do this once every two or three years."
Now, this I know more about than he does (family business, you know!) but he mentioned something else that surprised me. He said that the Chinese during the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th centuries B.C.) used turtle shells for divination, carving the answers right on the shells. These "shell-and-bone inscriptions" are China's earliest preserved form of writing. I never imagined my ancestors had this kind of history.
The morning of the third day I met a new visitor. His name was Tsou Ts'an-yang, and he's a graduate of National Taiwan University's Institute of Marine Science who works at Kenting National Park. He came with several assistants-and as soon as I saw them I knew they had come to take me "home"!
This Mr. Tsou said that both Kenting National Park and the International Nature Protection League prohibit the capture of sea turtles, and that the ones that are caught have usually gotten themselves stuck in nets like I did. He said that most of the fishermen, except for a few greedy ones, notify the headquarters if they catch one and have it released. "We've let a bunch of them go," he said. "It's our specialty."
They carried me to the car, and wrote a few words on me, like those on my "lucky charm," to protect me. The road was bumpy, but I put up with it when I thought of where I was going. On the way I pondered: in the sea it's strictly the survival of the fittest, but Nature it seems, also has something more.
The car stopped at a place called Fengchuisha, and everybody pitched in to carry me onto the beach.
Sniffing the salt sea air and catching the sparkle from the water surface, I crawled as fast as I could. The prints I left behind me were my "Kilroy was here."
And then, I was back in the big blue sea.
Here's what I look like--not bad, huh?
(above) The. tag that the researchers put on me is my lucky charm.
(below) My shell's protected me all my life; it's a burden I don't mind bearing.
Still a ways to go yet; just keep up the pace.
They put these marks on my back in case I got caught again.
Wow! Just a few more steps.
So long, friends! Hope we don't meet again!