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"Bonaire Puffer II"
"Cozumel Spotted Eel"
"Orange Cup Coral"
"Shrimp and Friend"
"The Journey Begins"
Below are direct links to the Underwater narratives:
-- "The Journey Home -- Tales of Wayne, the Turtle Man"
-- "Cozumel -- Into the Deep"
Below is a link to the reprint of the BBC web news
article containing Willis' "Orange Cup Coral" image:
BBC web article -- "Ten
Richest Coral Areas Pinpointed"
"The Journey Home"
"Tales of Wayne, the Turtle Man"
For the first time since my journey here began, the wind has started
to blow. The fruit bats, common evening companions above our oceanside
hut, are jittery and noisy. More than the customary discarded fruit
pits land on our thatched roof, and a general tension builds. I
hear Gary and Beth stirring in the adjacent hut, and soon we all
arrive simultaneously on our seaside porch. The equatorial sky is
ablaze with unfamiliar star patterns and the sea is, for the first
time in a week, a bit rough. After some obligatory gathering of
windblown garments and possessions, I notice a strange but beautiful
|. . . I notice a strange but beautiful
sight. Along the seawall -- a severe and direct drop-off beginning
no more than 10 meters from the pier and shoreline, extending
outward in front of us and surrounding the entire (tiny) island
-- a glow appears to exist. . . . Eventually we determine that
the beautiful aura is in fact phosphorescent plankton, breaking
apart and glittering dramatically as it is pushed by the rising
waves against the vertical seawall.
Along the seawall -- a severe and
direct drop-off beginning no more than 10 meters from the pier and
shoreline, extending outward in front of us and surrounding the
entire (tiny) island -- a glow appears to exist. I comment that
there must be divers out there, whose lights create this glow; but
quickly jettison this theory, since it's 3 A.M. and the sea appears
too rough for comfortable night diving. Still, there remains an
almost phosphorescent illumination, which becomes more prevalent
as time passes and the stormy weather prevails. Eventually we determine
that the beautiful aura is in fact phosphorescent plankton, breaking
apart and glittering dramatically as it is pushed by the rising
waves against the vertical seawall. This effect is so luminous that
I comment to Gary that one could probably dive without lights under
these circumstances. The event is a spectral ending to our time
on Malaysia's only oceanic island, the magnificent diminutive speck
of tropical paradise know as Pulau Sipadan.
My tour to this place directly began only a few days ago but, to
be sure, my journey here began long ago. My first recollection spans
back almost a year previous, when floating with my good friend Gary
down the majestic Salmon River in central Idaho. I had a rudimentary
knowledge of scuba diving, and had challenged him to get certified
(a type of formal scuba training) so we might enjoy this endeavor
together. I remember stating pompously at the time:
"If you and Beth (his wife) get certified, I'll come visit you in
Malaysia, and we'll travel to and dive Cousteau's 'micro-paradise,'
I'd really never heard previously of this obscure spot off the East
coast of Borneo, although in some dark and recessed location of
my subconscious I suppose I'd felt some need to visit a place like
this; I had only recently read Cousteau's uncompromised recommendation
of this remote location.
Jacques Cousteau, in fact, has been one of my few lifelong heroes.
As a child I watched his television specials with unparalleled wonder
and have throughout my life consumed his books with excitement and
vigor. I have always respected and passionately agreed with his
environmental positions on various matters. As such then, essentially
if he suggests that a particular dive site is the "best in the world,"
who am I to argue? With this simple set of parameters, coupled with
the wintertime reception of Gary's challenging "We're certified,
it's your call!" e-mail, we were off on the adventure.
It's late afternoon, and the huge jetliner is just a tiny shadow
over the great expanse of Utah's Canyonlands, and then invisible
against the powerful backdrop of the Grand Canyon. For me these
are friendly and familiar places, but when we re-board (after some
quick communiqués homeward) and start the long journey to
Asia, things become less comfortable. The coach seats are tiny,
even for my slight frame, and I start to wonder when the pilot announces
that we are passing over the Aleutian Islands and Bering Strait.
I had assumed we'd be going directly across the Pacific to Southeast
Asia, not flying some roundabout polar route. Perhaps we had to
dodge some storms? No matter. I'm engaged in a robust conversation
with a modern-day Cambodian couple, going home as newlyweds to tour
the old country, visit some ancient ruins and hang with his parents.
Little do they imagine that within three weeks (the length of my
stay in this exotic location) Cambodia will witness a coup ousting
his father (apparently an important cog in the now previous
administration) and forcing this handsome young couple and
entire extended family back to America. Even with this interesting
sidelight, the flight drags on interminably. A fuel stop in Taipei
promises to cut the tedium but is, in fact, a false hope. After
witnessing this place, I think I'd consider swimming back to the
I arrive in Kuala Lumpur, the vertical modern capital city of Malaysia.
My friends pick me up at the airport, and we tour (and I recover)
for a few days. We are then off on our scuba adventure. The first
leg is by aircraft over the South China Sea (a somber place from
my perspective). This segment is followed by more air and ground
travel until we reach the tiny outpost of Semporna, a last frontier
on the already remote island of Borneo. Our two hour boat trip into
the Celebes (Sulawesi) Sea to Sipadan passes the island of Mabul,
perhaps the southernmost Asian island whose coral reefs have been
devastated by the practice of cyanide and blast fishing. These vile
(and continuing)! practices involve the use of poison or dynamite
issued to the sea; after "activation" of these materials and methods,
the dead or stunned fish float to the surface for easy collection.
Passing Mabul, our goal is in sight! A tense anticipation seeps
from the dozen or so travelers, including myself, on this launch.
It seems incredible that this dream of mine is about to begin; we
are at the edge of forever, truly entering a place of magic. I actively
wonder what fantastic experiences and surprises await us. Slowing
to "land" on the beach, I spot the "Drop-Off," the world-renowned
Sipadan underwater seawall just meters from the shore. We pass over
it with great excitement. Essentially the front half of the boat
is beached; concurrently, the back half floats in over 1000 meters
of water. THIS is amazing! Friendly folks (including an interesting-looking
short but stout man carving some objects from what appear to be
common erasers) greet us at the beach. This is the highly respected
staff of Borneo Divers, our hosts for the adventure.
After some nominal unloading and instruction, we don our scuba units
and walk into the ocean. Upon entering, we check equipment, "lay
back" and "attach" our fins. My first sight downward is toward the
edge, dead ahead. Amazingly, the initial creature I see in these
exotic waters is the otherwise rare Lionfish. And what a sight he
is, moving up and back from the "Drop-Off" to the two-meter deep
sand shoal immediately adjacent to it -- all the time deliberately
displaying the colorful but poisonous barbs that protrude from his
20-centimeter body. Adorned with these fan like barbs, and floating
almost aimlessly, he appears like a multicolored pinwheel against
the coral-laden sea. As we slowly descend from the sand into the
deep, an odd feeling of extreme familiarity and calmness seems to
prevail, at least in me.
the initial creature I see in these exotic waters is the otherwise
rare Lionfish. And what a sight he is, moving up and back from
the "Drop-Off" to the two-meter deep sand shoal immediately
adjacent to it -- all the time deliberately displaying the colorful
but poisonous barbs that protrude from his 20-centimeter body.
I feel as if I have come home; and
almost as if this place -- this remote island speck in the middle
of nowhere -- somehow exists in that deeply private space where
lifelong personal journeys begin and end. Is this realization part
of the reason I seek out such exotic locations? Perhaps this phenomena
is merely representative of the curiosity that is so prevalent in
my psyche, or is there possibly something missing in my life? I've
felt at times that all this searching must be for a
yet unknown purpose, and although I have gone to great lengths toward
this potential conclusion, it seems that I have not yet discovered
what I am looking for. Gary taps my shoulder and visually chastises
me, as we are already falling behind the rest of the group. Too
I check my depth, air and buddy. All seem OK as we inch effortlessly
down and along the wall. Then something extraordinary occurs. A
large sea turtle (later we learn that this first one, and a high
percentage of the literally dozens we see over a week's time are
Green Turtles, or Chelonia mydas) swims through us and into a "resting"
cavity on the wall. All of us are amazed by the close proximity
of this encounter; we will continually be amazed as the week progresses
-- as we all observe many turtles (both the above-mentioned Greens
as well as the coral-eating Hawksbills) -- swimming, sleeping, eating,
mating and even coming ashore at night to lay eggs. Before surfacing,
and after some additional extraordinary sightings, we inch by a
large cave, and the divemaster warns us of the dangers of entering.
This is the island's famous "Turtle Cavern" where, within it's complex
catacombs, skeletons of many sea turtles have been discovered. It
is said that aging turtles often return here to die. All legend
aside, truly Sipadan is a place where sea turtles come; their journeys
starting and ending at this maritime epicenter, their lives beginning
with the epic "baby turtles struggling to the sea" scene, their
mating and egg-laying culminating a long an arduous early life at
sea and their lives perhaps sometimes ending appropriately in the
"Turtle Cavern." And at the center of the great sea turtles' island
odyssey is an exceptional human, that interesting man carving turtle
"stamps" out of common erasers, Wayne (Pedroso),
the Turtle Man of Sipadan Island.
aside, truly Sipadan is a place where sea turtles come; their
journeys starting and ending at this maritime epicenter, their
lives beginning with the epic "baby turtles struggling to the
sea" scene, their mating and egg-laying culminating a long an
arduous early life at sea and their lives perhaps sometimes
ending appropriately in the "Turtle Cavern." And at the center
of the great sea turtles' island odyssey is an exceptional human,
that interesting man carving turtle "stamps" out of common erasers,
Wayne (Pedroso), the Turtle Man of
A small, nondescript backboard off
the main dining room and bar (a comfortable open-air affair -- wonderfully
overlooking the sea) reads:
"Turtle Walks -- Jungle Walks -- Wayne [the Turtle Man]
Sign-up below -- Turtle Walks begin at 7 P.M."
After the considerable excitement surrounding the wildlife sightings
of today (sharks were also encountered, but to me the turtles somehow
defined the magic), how could I deny myself this treat. What exactly,
however, is a turtle walk; especially at night? (In the tropics,
specifically so close to the equator -- five degrees north latitude
-- it gets dark everyday, year-round by perhaps 6:30 P. M., so these
turtle walks are in total darkness.) I wonder what we'll see? What,
Wayne comes up to each signed-in participant while at dinner --
quietly, almost secretively, noting that it is time. We leave noiselessly
and follow his quick pace though the cook and worker's quarters;
they are all relaxing after a service-filled day, and greet Wayne
with much respect. We walk away from the artificially lit areas,
and out onto the deserted beach landscape. Wayne has noted previously
to all guests that hiking along the beach unescorted alone at night
is strictly forbidden, issuing only "the turtles, of course" as
his reasoning for such a strict regulation. "No talking" he curtly
states, "and no flashlights on either." Somehow there is no question
that all will obey; it's almost as if we have now entered "his"
island, Wayne's domain. I can't help thinking that all the silence
is very peaceful and appropriate, and there is little need for light,
as long as care is taken while treading over the large roots issued
from the jungle trees located near shore. When walking in the water
(albeit quietly ), we observe with wonder the phosphorescent
plankton breaking up in the small waves caressing our bare feet.
Suddenly, Wayne dictates that we stop, and a strange splashing noise
becomes obvious. We sit motionless in total silence, and listen
further as the splashing becomes a sort of grunting, a set of sounds
apparently exhibiting some sort of struggle or difficulty. Our eyes
have become accustomed to the darkness, and the landscape has become
visible, even under a moonless night far from any real civilization.
Then the reality becomes obvious. This is a giant adult turtle coming
ashore to lay eggs. We are witnessing here the great matriarch of
the ocean; grunting, struggling, scraping and scratching on the
unnatural environment of land -- coming ashore to lay her eggs --
to continue the species; she's coming ashore, just as her ancestors
have done for truly a hundred million years -- she's coming ashore
3 meters from us, and being escorted in by Wayne the Turtle
Man -- we are the privileged few that by some circumstance
in our personal journeys have chosen to share this spot with her
for this moment, for this time. I look up in the sky -- the blazingly
clear tropical sky -- and for the first time in my life, there below
the central Milky Way galaxy "explosion" in Sagittarius, I see the
Southern Cross. Truly, the cosmic dance meets the oceanic rhythm.
The equatorial heavens meet the ancient processes of the living
planet. Having been attached to the sky since my earliest recollection,
and now to somehow be placed here under these circumstances -- I
know now that I have finally arrived home.
reality becomes obvious. This is a giant adult turtle coming
ashore to lay eggs. We are witnessing here the great matriarch
of the ocean; grunting, struggling, scraping and scratching
on the unnatural environment of land -- coming ashore to lay
her eggs -- to continue the species; she's coming ashore, just
as her ancestors have done for truly a hundred million years
-- she's coming ashore 3 meters from us, and being escorted
in by Wayne the Turtle Man . . .
After some time (perhaps an hour)
of total silence and peace, she is ready to lay her eggs. She commences,
and Wayne then suggests that it's OK to come and look. Once sea
turtles begin laying, Wayne definitively professes, they are unbothered
by humans. If disturbed coming ashore, however, they will return
to the sea and abort the eggs for the current year. They cannot
be annoyed in any way until the process begins. She lays for perhaps
fifteen minutes -- Wayne says "She's done" and sure enough, one
egg later, she covers the half-meter cavity with her back flippers.
Wayne "helps" (I find this curious, but have come to agree with
it), and we retreat back to our huts.
The next day, we learn the whole story behind Wayne and the turtles.
Wayne either marks the nests if they are located in "camp" (3 month
gestation) or more often collects the eggs, digging new "identical"
nests in a locked open-air area on the other side of the island.
He monitors the births and releases the babies, generally in private,
to the sea. The reasoning here is that Indonesian fisherman come
to Sipadan to collect and sell these eggs. Without Wayne, I have
no doubt that Green and Hawksbill turtles in this area of the world
would probably go extinct, as their nesting grounds (Sipadan and
just a precious few other islands sprinkled throughout Malaysia,
Indonesia and the Philippines [where blast fishing was invented!]
are so few and far between.) Wayne's complete and selfless dedication
to these unique and ancient species is beyond compare; he is a modern-day
hero, this man who tirelessly patrols the beaches of Pulau Sipadan
all night, every night, all year, every year, to ensure the viability
of these magnificent sea turtles.
newborns know just what to do -- like magic they all (100-plus
of them) aim up to the glistening sea, and crawl into their
life, confidently starting their journey on the shores of this
tiny seamount in the Celebes Sea. They enter the water, their
miniature heads dwarfed by the endless ocean. Some (a small
minority) will survive, and will return after perhaps 20 years
to mate and begin the process again. They, like awestruck humans
on this tropical paradise, may by then have realized a part
of their journey, and will have returned home.
Wayne comes up to me
at dinner. "It's time," he whispers. Dusk on Pulau Sipadan, the
last night here for me. Wayne has a plastic bucket in hand -- I
sneak a look. Inside is one hatching of a Green turtle who came
ashore some months previous -- Wayne quickly moves to the shoreline
and unceremoniously dumps the five centimeter long babies on the
sand. They scratch and scrape, just as their mother did coming ashore.
But there are no human predators here, just admirers. And the newborns
know just what to do -- like magic they all (100-plus of them) aim
up to the glistening sea, and crawl into their life, confidently
starting their journey on the shores of this tiny seamount in the
Celebes Sea. They enter the water, their miniature heads dwarfed
by the endless ocean.
Some (a small minority) will survive,
and will return after perhaps 20 years to mate and begin the process
again. They, like awestruck humans on this tropical paradise, may
by then have realized a part of their journey, and will have returned
Copyright Willis Greiner, 1997. All rights reserved.