A Turtle Mutiny?

Sunday 10th. When you are visitors to another country, you need to respect their culture. Certainly you need to abide by their laws, whether you agree with them or not. I am acutely aware of that, so have all my crew sign and agree to abide by a “code of conduct”. Amongst other things, it says that at all times, they must act in the best interest and reputation of all BLUETREASURE participants and that they must respect Tongan traditions, culture and sensitivities.

Living in and on the Ocean, our respect for it and everything in it, is intense to say the least. Tonga is a beautiful place, with clean, relatively healthy reefs and oceans. All Tongans are trying their best to manage their marine resources at a village and Government level. None the less, a major part of the Tongan population are subsistence providers, living entirely from their gardens and from the sea. Many have virtually no form of cash income, except from weaving Tapa cloth or selling produce from the ocean.

Today while moored stern to the wall in Pangi, the capital of Ha’Apai, an elderly local man and a young boy came down to the water’s edge. They were checking on a turtle they had tethered to the end of a long rope, just 25mtrs from ICE. It was no doubt to be used for an imminent food occasion or sold at the Market. When the man left, two of my crew, who did not want to see the turtle die, decided to steal it and release it.

I discovered this action only as they were swimming to the turtle. I shouted to them that they must leave it alone and respect the Tongan way. I also said if they released it now, they would have to leave the expedition immediately, six weeks early. They thought about it, then decided to go ahead and untie the rope. The turtle swam free. They made their choice and went against my direct request.

We all love turtles. I did not disagree with their feelings, but totally disagreed with what they did, (steal someone’s food/property without their knowledge) and the way they did it. It has the potential to seriously affect our good standing in the local community. If they felt so strongly, they should have simply confronted the owner, not broken the law. When you are part of a team and a project, at times you have to accept that personal passions may need to take second place, for the good of all.

The turtle was not in “serious” distress, needing imminent release on compassionate grounds. These crew were simply of the opinion that Tongans should not eat turtle. Pangi is a sleepy little place. There are no other people in the harbor except us. The owner may assume it was the “Palangis’(white men) from ICE who released the turtle. Why? Because all Palangis care about turtles. The owners may well have told friends about their “special” turtle, as they are not caught often. They will be shocked to find it gone on their return. They may seek retribution on us, without our knowledge.

We have visited Pangi every two weeks for the past three months, for internet and fresh food. Now we will be working from Pangi every day for the next month and maybe during the next few years, as there are important wrecks close by. We have a letter of invitation from the locals to help them secure their wrecks. We have the support of the local governor. By their actions, these two crew did not consider our reputation, were not sensitive to Tongan traditions and may have broken the law.

Don’t get me wrong, I love turtles and accept that they are endangered. I would also protect any living thing from unnecessary suffering and try to educate people to change what I believe may be bad habits, but I am also a guest in Tonga and will act accordingly. Protected Turtles and Dugong are taken legally for food by Aboriginals in Australia. It is controversial, but it is their culture and tradition. I may not like that either, but I have to respect it, as I am an Australian. If we want to live in Tonga, we do not have the right to forcefully impose personal views on what Tongans can, or cannot eat, or how they earn a living.

We will miss Woodie and Harry. They were fun!