Think you’d recognise a turtle if you saw one?
No, not a tortoise. A turtle!
Hard shell criss-crossed with grooves, like half a grenade, only bigger. Prehistoric head and neck sticking out at the top and flappers the size of Boeing aerofoils alongside. Glides through the ocean like Thunderbird Four, slow and graceful, yet sort of heavy too.
Think you’d recognise one, do you?
Then where the hell are they?
Something as distinctive as a turtle, you’re not going to confuse it with an eel, or a clam, or any type of fish. So big and wieldy, arching through the water with the grace of a military helicopter, you’re going to recognise it straightaway, aren’t you?
So how come we haven’t seen any?
Fact is, there are turtles at Manase Beach, ferrying supplies to and from the reef. But because they swim so fast, and the water is so murky – the lagoon equivalent of Operation Desert Storm – we’d be lucky to spot the twenty-seventh battalion crossing on the seabed. At best, we glimpse a Thunderbird Two shaped shadow in the gloom, flashing past at the speed of Thunderbird One. No real chance of seeing anything, let alone taking a photo. Slow these turtles are not.
Fortunately there’s a watering hole down the road (at Sale’aula) where nineteen off-duty turtles usually hang out. If you feed them some pawpaw, they’ll spin a tail or two, even let you swim with them on manoeuvres.
“They’re big, aren’t they?” A lady already wades in the water, while her husband watches from the safety of the platform. “I hope they don’t bite.”
“They seem to like head butting though.” Kate climbs in with the lady, realising she wants some company. “And jabbing their flappers in your bum.”
“They’re like cats, aren’t they?” says the lady. “Waiting to be fed.”
“They like being stroked on their backs.” Kate demonstrates. “Their necks too.”
“You’re brave.” The lady tries as well. ‘My name’s Penny, I like to push myself into new things.’
I wait with her husband, Derek, on the platform. He explains how like seasoned veterans, the turtles love to flirt with the ladies. They’re more likely to pick fights with the men, which is why we don’t go in.
“Gave me a hell of a time naming them all.” The plantation owner wanders up. He’s a short fat man with a white beard. “I tried Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, after the Italian painters, but they’re all such a mouthful, and what about the other fifteen?”
“Couldn’t you give them numbers?” says Derek “We’ve got a hotel and that’s what we do with the rooms.”
“You can’t call turtles by numbers.” The owner turns red, flabbergasted. “They’re living creatures, not bloody rowing boats.”
“So what do you call them?” says Derek calmly.
“I tried the names of the seven dwarves.” The owner strokes his beard. “Then the eight reindeer, but hell that didn’t work either.”
“Why not?” I say. “With the painters, isn’t that nineteen altogether?”
“Sure is.” The owner nods. “But doesn’t help. I can never remember the names of the reindeer, or the bloody dwarves.”
“So why don’t you give the them dog-tags?” says Derek. “Like proper soldiers.”
“No, I found a solution.” The owner smiles, his whole face lighting into a bauble of joy. “I’ve called them after the puppets in Thunderbirds. Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon, Alan and all the rest. Fits their tough guy image, plus they’re names I remember from when I was a kid. See that one over there with the peaked head, that’s Parker. And the one with the pink shell, Lady Penelope. Just fab, aren’t they?”