St. John: Snorkelling with turtles

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the Virgin Islands are very much open for business, and while tourists are starting to return, it seems the turtles have been enjoying having the place to themselves

By James Draven
Published 13 Nov 2018, 08:00 GMT, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 14:31 BST
Photograph by Getty Images

"Who wants to bet on how long it will take us to see turtles?", asks Paul Askew, our kayaking guide from Virgin Islands EcoTours, smirking through his heavy beard. His eyes are twinkling with mischievousness in the sunlight, as we pull our vessels up onto the retina-scorching white sands of Scott Beach Bay on the island of St. John. I can tell from his smile that we're going to be in for a treat. Eventually, he lets us in on the joke: "It's never taken me more than five minutes to find turtles when I take groups snorkelling here!"

Two thirds of St. John, a US territory in the Caribbean, is designated as the Virgin Islands National Park, which protects over a hundred archeological sites dating from as early as 840 BC to the arrival of Columbus in 1493. It's also a haven for wildlife and, since arriving in the national park by rigid inflatable boat from Cruz Bay, I've been kayaking around with Paul, visiting the stunning swathes of sand at Honeymoon Beach and the six-foot-long tarpon fish that ply Henley Cay. But I've been awaiting the star event: snorkelling in Scott Beach Bay, an area that reputedly teems with sea turtles.

Twenty minutes later, Paul is looking a little red-faced, and not just because of the blazing sunshine: we've been snorkelling around – arching out into the deep and back, from one end of the beach to the other – and seen nothing. The water is as warm as the kids' pool at your local swimming baths, but despite the crystalline visibility, nobody has seen anything but delicately rippled white sand on the seabed.

We turn to take a second lap of the waters and, as we cut through the middle of the circle we've just swum, we finally spot two hawksbill turtles on the bottom, munching on a few scant clumps of seagrass.

"We must have snorkelled right around them," laughs Paul, realising our quarry has been at the centre of our orbit, forming the hub of the path we've just spent nearly half an hour plotting.

Within a few minutes, the rest of my group head for shore, satisfied with their turtle sighting, and thirsty for cocktails. But just as I'm hanging back to get a final look at the turtles, another drifts by, tailed by a large remora fish. The remora has an in-built sucker which enables it to ride along atop the turtle's shell, removing ectoparasites, getting a free ride, and feeding on its hosts' scraps and faeces. When I dive down to take a closer look at their mutualistic relationship the fish darts underneath the turtle's body, sharing its protective shell.

Spellbound, I follow the turtle's tranquil trajectory through the water, and then suddenly I'm surrounded. The water is thick with turtles of all sizes. They flap past me, languid and hypnotic, as I bob around in this bewitching broth, limp-limbed in the calm, cradling currents.

The turtle tracked by the remora takes a course directly beneath me for a while, swimming along in my shadow before she starts to rise up until she's just a foot from my face, her shell gliding by my snorkel mask glass. Amid the patterns and patina of her shell, the mottled hues of greens and browns, there's a faint design visible through the clear water, like a tribal tattoo inked almost imperceptibly on her back.

Then she pops up out of the water as I stop to give her space. She considers me for a second, takes a gulp of air then dives back down, seemingly scrutinising my very being with eyes that disappear into eternity. I stare back in awe, mesmerised, fully comprehending the minds of the ancient Hindu storytellers who wrote myths of the Cosmic Turtle that carried the world on its back.

In this trance, I follow as she dives down towards the seabed, leaving the throng of her tribe behind, with the remora at her belly and me directly behind: a zen procession into the deep, following my sub-mariner soul mate until she releases an enormous stream of her own soup, stewing me in a miasma of abhorrent bouillabaisse. Obviously, she thinks I'm just another sucker.


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