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This is the good life

Kate Findlay, Wwf
Friday, December 23, 2011

AS the boat draws up it seems like we've reached paradise: traditional thatched bure line the shores of Yadua Island, a national heritage site, and the village sits crowned by low-lying hills behind.

Walking through the village, I do a double take: am I really seeing this?

A one-metre long loggerhead turtle sits chilling in the shade of a frangipani tree with an aerial glued to the top of its shell.

It's as if past and present have collided: the turtle, from the age of the dinosaurs, with a satellite tag on its back from the space-age, in a village that seems to have changed very little for hundreds of years.

The majestic turtle in question, named WWF Voyager, was previously tagged in 2010 but for reasons unknown she went off the radar when her transmission ceased almost a year ago.

Curiously, this time around she was caught in almost exactly the same place as she was found originally.

About triple my weight and two times my age, at 150kg the 50-year-old turtle is so heavy that when we release her at high tide it takes five grown men over a series of 20-seconds bursts to carry WWF Voyager to the beach, where she bursts to life at the smell of sea salt and freedom.

It's through satellite tagging such as this that WWF has established where turtles are located in Fiji and thus how best to protect them.

For example, as a result of tagging we currently have evidence that WWF Voyager and a number of other individuals spend years at a time feeding and nesting around the Great Sea Reef and Yadua Island, so WWF can now push for better protection of this area.

Over kava, I chat to one of the individuals WWF has trained to monitor and tag turtles in the area: Barry Hill, a 22-year-old commercial beche-de-mer diver.

He explains that as recently as five years ago, he was one of the fishers who for every wedding or funeral on the island used to catch four or five turtles the size of the one we just released.

A change in attitude came about when WWF visited the village, informing the community about the bleak future of turtle populations if current practices continue.

This message stuck a cord with older villagers who had been noticing over the years that turtles were getting smaller and harder to find.

Today, Barry proudly proclaims that the only occasion when a turtle will be caught is for the death of the chief.

Life is so tranquil here, children play on little boats in the sea, only metres from the row of thatched bure on the beach as voluptuous pink frangipani blossoms glisten in the sun.

In the bure a wood fire burns and women sit outside weaving pandanus grass to make baskets and mats.

Walking along the beach I pity my friends now looking for jobs in the hubbub of London; all that stress, cold and misery in a place where people don't even know who their neighbours are.

I have an epiphany that money and possessions do not make people happy; this is the good life, in touch with nature with friends and family all around.

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