If you spend enough time in the water in Hawai’i, you’ll eventually meet the green sea turtle. The turtle comes to those who are patient, to those who watch. And if you watch the sea closely enough, and long enough, you learn that the green sea turtle serves as a messenger, a signal. When you are surfing, the sea turtle always surfaces right before the bigger waves come through. In larger waves, I have even seen the sea turtle getting pulled up into the surf. When I am scared in the swell, and I see the turtle nearby, I know I am safe. I also know it is time to paddle out to sea, to be in position for the bigger waves, and to avoid getting a wave on the head.
If you spend enough time in the reef, learning the habits of fish, following them, you’ll eventually encounter the green sea turtle. When you see one for the first time, it is a truly otherworldly experience—they literally seem to materialize out of the blue.
In Hawaiian culture, the honu, or sea turtle, is a messenger, a navigator, and a protector of both the land and the sea. According to the National Park Service, in some Hawaiian legends, the islands are formed on the back of the honu. The sea turtle navigates two worlds: the world of the sea and the world of land. The turtle is a voyager through time. It is Jurassic in the truest sense, having survived the downfall of the dinosaurs. It is a wanderer, spending much of its life exploring the seas, returning to land to lay eggs. Young green sea turtles spend the first five to twenty years of their lives in the open ocean, vulnerable to predators, foraging for food. Little is known of their dangerous and perilous youth.
The sea turtle is born small and vulnerable, and lives many anonymous years in the big ocean, sometimes hiding under pieces of trash to survive, only to become sturdy, able to reside on both the land and sea. Its shell is hard, but it is still soft inside. It dives deep, but needs to surface to breathe. It knows its limitations and these limitations have taught it how to be a keen observer of the swells and tides. It feels the energy of a swell, and knows when to surface. It is naturally curious. I have known turtles to surface once, and then a second time, looking me directly in the eye for a long time.
In the Hawaiian creation story, the Kumulipo, humans come last in the great chain of being. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her stunning collection of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass explains, “we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live….Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”
The sea turtle is shaped like a compass for a reason. Like humans, it can reside in two worlds. Like humans, it can dive deep, but must come up for air. It must navigate the vast seas and find its way back to land. We can be guided by the sea turtle, if we pay attention closely. If we follow its lead.
I saw my first sea turtle not in Hawai’i, but in Puerto Rico.
My grandmother used to tell me about Puerto Rico when I was a little girl. At night, the song of the frogs would keep you awake, she explained. The name of the frog is the coqui and its song sounds just like its name.
My grandmother was born in Puerto Rico, but moved to New York when she was a child. She returned to Puerto Rico after my father had been born, but the family left again because my grandfather followed the jobs where they took him. When I was 31 years old, I visited Puerto Rico for the first time. I went there to surf, and also to see the island where my grandmother had been born, and to hear the song of the coqui.
The first night I spent in Rincon, on the west side of the island, I sat awake all night listening to the song of the coqui. The next day I went surfing. In that wild ocean that made me at once terrified and awe-struck, I saw my first green sea turtle. I can’t explain it, but I felt closer to my grandmother sitting with the turtles than I’d ever felt since she had passed away. And so, whenever I saw a sea turtle, it felt a little like my grandmother was visiting me. I have seen sea turtles surfing waves and I have seen them come up to inspect me more closely. On some truly beautiful days, I have surfed beside them. They surf. They do.
It wasn’t until I moved to Hawai’i that I learned about the concept of the aumakua, an ancestor who has passed away and returned in animal form as a guide and protector. I think this is why I always feel safe when I see the green sea turtle in the water. Hawai’i is very different from Puerto Rico and also, in some ways, very similar.
On the big Island of Hawai’i, at night, I hear a familiar song.
Puerto Ricans were brought to Hawai’i to work on the sugarcane plantations. Along with the Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Portuguese, and Chinese, they were brought to the island for their cheap labor. They also brought along with them the coqui. At night on the Big Island of Hawai’i, I hear them.
I am like the green sea turtle. I have spent the years of my youth, wandering the world, drifting, surviving. After many lost years, I have seen the shores where I’ll make my nest.
I come to Hawai’i not as the child of those Puerto Rican plantation workers, but feel somehow destined to be here, drawn here; I feel almost as if my ancestors may somehow be here, even if only in the form of the familiar animals of my grandmother’s birthplace.
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.