Of Man and Turtles

Trip Start Dec 25, 2006
Trip End Jan 02, 2007

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Flag of Grenadines/St Vincent  ,
Friday, December 29, 2006

A man of the sea lays asleep in the sand.  Being a sailor, he feels constrained and claustrophobic at the thought of a tent.  The natural cover of the tropical sky, dense with a cloud of stars, and a couple of coconut burdened palm trees provide him with shelter.  He sleeps soundly, rocked into REM by the soothing seduction of the Caribbean's rhythmic waves.  His small, wooden boat, bobs in the natural bay where it waits, anchored.  

Suddenly, the sailor kicks his legs and rolls over.  Then his eyes snap open, startled.  He is no longer alone.  Something has found him.  He cannot see what it is, yet does not want to move to find out.  Instead he lays there, still- very still.  Whatever it is, it is leathery, large and silent.  Maybe it will go away?  No, now he is under attack.  The creature is throwing sand up onto his body, burying him alive. Unable to take the suspense any longer, the sailor is about to kick when the sandy attack suddenly halts.  After a brief pause, he feels soft, round stones falling, brushing his hairy shins and nestling in the sand between his legs.  Feeling braver, the sailor sits slightly up to take a peek. At his feet he sees a rare, hawksbill sea turtle, large and dark like a shadow on the sand, laying her eggs.  Amazed, the sailor does nothing but watch.  He cannot move, that much he knows, for the life of the turtles that will someday emerge from those soft white eggs depend on it.  The turtle finishes laying her legacy, repeats the throwing of the sand, and waddles back to the sea where she slides in, submerges, and disappears into a wave that will carry her back to the far northern Atlantic.
Fast-forward 12 years and that sailor, a bit older, a bit grayer, is welcoming guests to his Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary.  Located on the same beach where he first met the mystery reptile of the sea, Orton King now spends his life raising, nursing and releasing sea turtles.  Orton King, known as Brother King to the respecting locals, takes a young French girl, with her excited and quizzical blue eyes brightened by her bleached blond curls, to introduce her to Busy Body, a 7 year old Hawksbill sea turtle. 
Located near Industry Bay, on Bequia's rugged and isolated northern coast, the open aired cement agricultural-looking shelter that houses the Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary is perhaps Bequia's best, if not only, bonafide tourist attraction.  Oldhegg is a local term used to refer to a 'runt' or a 'nuisance'.  Brother King chose this name for his sanctuary because it is a nickname given by sailors to injured turtles.  Since injured turtles reside in the shallow reefs popular for commercial fishing, they often get caught in nets and thus are a nuisance to the fisherman.  It's also a nod to his grandfather, also a fisherman, who referred to everyone as an oldhegg, especially Orton.
Reached via a beautiful walk through Spring starting from Port Elizabeth or via taxi, visitors will gain a unique opportunity to meet these amazing creatures in all stages of their life.  Not only will visitors see turtles up close, they will also learn about their triumphant life cycle and the dangers they now face from Brother King, who is always eager to discuss his full-time hobby.

A full-grown hawksbill turtle can reach three feet in length and weigh up to three-hundred pounds, although the average weight is more likely between one-hundred and one-hundred and fifty pounds.  They are named for their hawk-like beak and can be distinguished by their clawed flippers.  Every year between April and November the female turtle returns to the same nesting spot to lay her clutch of roughly 140 eggs.  They do this four times every season.  The incubation period last around sixty days, at which time the 35-centimeter hatchlings break through their shells and, guided by the light of the moon, head straight for the ocean. 

The hawksbill turtle has been considered an endangered species since 1970.  Their main source of food is sponges, commonly found among coral reefs- also endangered.  Over the past century the hawksbill population has experienced a decrease of at least 80%.  This genocide of their species is due to continued illegal poaching for their shells, loss of habitation for coastal development, disorientation by hatchlings trying to reach the ocean as a result of beach lights, hungry predators, watercraft injuries and commercial fishing.  It was these startling facts that inspired Brother King to dedicate his life to reversing this trend. 

Brother King's relationship with turtles began much earlier than his beachside encounter.  As a local Bequian skin diver, he was always bumping into these underwater creatures and as a child he use to keep them as pets.  In this light it really doesn't seem odd to see him put Busy Body, his current pet turtle, on a leash and go snorkeling together.  To Brother King, this is natural due to the bond he has developed with the species. 

The turtle rescue process begins upon the turtle's laying of the eggs.  After the female turtle returns to the sea, Orton combs the beach and gathers the eggs.  Back at the sanctuary he nurtures the eggs until they hatch and then cares for the turtles until they are three years old.  The reason for his gathering of the eggs is to increase the turtle's chances of survival.  Only a select few turtles actually survive to reach three years of age, not nearly enough to maintain the overall population.  By raising the turtle until three and then releasing them back to their natural home, Orton increases the chance of not only the individual turtle's survival, but that of the species.  When questioned on his practice of denying turtles their natural habitat he casually replies, "Because of me they will live up to 200 years old, what is three years to them?"  Between the turtles he has hatched and the others he has rescued, Brother King is responsible for over 1,000 turtle success stories.  

But it's not only the fascination of the rescue process that brings travelers to Brother King's Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary.  What draws people here is the desire to discover the secret of the turtle.  This desire to understand and to learn is what draws travelers from all over, including the old sailor Brother King, to the Hawksbill turtle. 
The legendary sea turtle is perhaps the greatest traveler of all.  Since the prehistoric times of the dinosaurs, when the landmasses that we now traverse formed and reformed again, year after year these great travelers of the sea set sail and, guided by the light of the moon, end up here.  And like the sea turtle, Brother King and the thousands of travelers who have come to visit him, arrive here in this remote corner of an isolated island in hopes of learning the secret of these ancient travelers of time- the secrets of survival, the secrets of the sea, and the secrets of traveling by the light of the moon. 

For More Information:
Oldhegg Turtle Sanctuary:  784-458-3245  Oldhegg@vincysurf.com
Bequia Sweet: www.bequiasweet.com
Bequia Toursim: www.bequiatourism.com

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