Curacao Turtle Rescue

If there is anything I have learned after over thirty years of scuba diving is while an individual dive may be unspectacular or uneventful, you can be certain at the end of a trip you will have seen one or more things you will never forget. This is what keeps me going back. It’s those amazing sights, wonders of nature, spectacular marine life and the encounters of the deep that make scuba an incredible experience. You are visiting an environment which is totally foreign to you yet overwhelming in what it has to offer.

While vacationing on the Caribbean island of Curacao I booked three two-tank boat dives and a night dive with Caribbean Sea Sports. They are a PADI dive shop near our hotel. I enjoy underwater photography and my goal was to photograph seahorses, octopus, turtles and just about anything else that crossed in front of my viewfinder. I wasn’t disappointed and I got more than I could have expected.

It was the fifth dive of my trip and there were three of us on the boat along with the boat captain. The dive site was called “Off-the-Road” and it was an interesting wall dive with an abundance of marine life. My two dive buddies were our Divemaster Laura van Loon and Judy Davis. Laura is from Engelen, Netherlands and was open water certified when she was 11 years old. She is an Open Water Scuba Instructor with a serious concern for the environment. Judy is from Calgary, Alberta, and is also a Diving Instructor. With over twenty years of experience, she has been diving all over the world. This includes the west coast of Canada, the mountain lakes around Calgary
and tech diving as well. I am a Divemaster with over 500 open water dives; these two ladies are way beyond my paygrade. This font of experience I was with would prove to make this a very special day.

We were drifting along a wall somewhere between 50 and 60 feet. As we approached a cut in the wall Laura pointed with an exciting gesture to her right. There was a flat spot slightly above us and a large adult green turtle laying in a flat sandy area less than 10 yards away. I approached slowly, camera in hand and popping off one shot after another. As I ascended above the turtle, I noticed something wasn’t quite right. I hovered about six of eight feet over the turtle and Laura approached the critter and exposed a rather large piece of “fabric” attached to the left front flipper.

It was at this point the knowledge and experience of both Laura and Judy went to work. As Laura was busy locating the entanglement of the foreign material, Judy manoeuvred to Laura’s side and to the left of the turtle. Working as a team they held the fabric in such a way so Laura could quickly cut it loose. While all this was going on the turtle never moved. It was one of those magical moments in nature when the distressed animal knows these odd characters, blowing bubbles and physically making contact were there to help. As soon as the material was cut from the flipper the turtle was gone, and free.

I hovered above, observed and took photos. I knew right away the best help I could give was to stay out of the way. My concern was if I approached the turtle it may become nervous and the effort and moment would be lost. All three of us did what we were supposed to do.

I spoke to Aaron Sprowl, Curator for the St. Louis Aquarium. Mr Sprowl told me two things about this encounter were common. First, with the increasing amount of junk that is being put in our oceans and entanglement such as this happens all too often. He also said there is a long list of situations where animals in the wild become approachable when distressed.

Judy slipped the material into a mesh bag Laura was carrying and we were on our way to enjoy the rest of our dive. We were also able to retain a special memory; we saved a turtle!

When we returned to the dive shop, we were able to inspect the material removed from the turtle. It appeared to be a non-biodegradable weave similar to Tyvek, possibly a sandbag. It is anyone’s guess where the turtle picked this up or how long it was carrying it. One thing was certain, this foreign material attached to the front flipper had a negative effect on its mobility.

In reflection, we all felt lucky to be able to free the turtle from its entanglement. It made me realize the fragility which exist in our oceans and how our trash can only negatively affect this delicate environment.

Scuba diving is an experience I have enjoyed every time I have been in the water. When I am in the ocean, I know I am “visiting” a very special place and I was lucky on this dive to have an experience I will never forget. I thank Laura, Judy and Caribbean Sea Sports for making it all happen.

By Terry Gibbons