Story by Diane Haynes Woodburn
“You need to go paddling,” my husband advises. I look at him with disbelief. He knows how hard I’ve been working—and he knows I’m racing a deadline to get it done. I’m overwhelmed, and he thinks I should get in a canoe? It takes every chromosome in my body to resist the knee-jerk response: I can’t! There’s too much to do! Instead, I hear myself say, “Let’s go.”
And he’s right, of course. The day is nothing less than glorious. The sky is blue, blue, blue; the ocean clear as a fishbowl. We launch our one-man canoes off a Kïhei beach and paddle toward the reef. The rhythm of my stroke, the gentle lift and push of the ocean, the steady offshore breeze, all create a sweet state of reverie. Life is pono (all good) again.
Haaahhoosh! That’s a tough one to transcribe. It’s the sound a honu (Hawaiian green sea turtle) makes as she pokes her shiny head above the surface to exhale, then gather in another breath before diving down in search of more tasty limu (seaweed). The sound greets me as my canoe approaches the reef.
Haaahhoosh! I hear another, and then another. I’m surrounded by honu. One is just inches away. For a moment, her big doe eyes lock onto mine, then the huge, graceful animal glides off, no less surprised than I.
As I watch her swim away, I am struck by her elegance—and obvious good health. No tumors. In fact, of the dozen or more turtles I watch, only one seems to be afflicted with fibropapillomatosis (FP), a disease that until not long ago seemed likely to wipe out Hawai‘i’s green turtle population.
First discovered in 1936, FP is now found in every ocean on Earth and is said to have spread to six of the seven other turtle species. It causes grotesque tumors that commonly form on the eyes, mouth and neck, growing large enough to cripple, and eventually kill. It’s estimated that at its peak, the disease affected more than 60 percent of Hawai‘i’s honu. (See MNKO Vol. 11 No. 2) Scientists have no idea what causes FP, and no idea how to reverse it. Once, there were several million green sea turtles in the world. Now there are fewer than 200,000 mature females, and only 100 to 350 nesting each year in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
And yet, here she is—healthy, and gorgeous. In the last few years, scientists have noticed a decline in the disease in the population as a whole, and more remarkably, a spontaneous regression of the tumors in individual turtles that once seemed doomed. For reasons no one understands, the disease has begun to simply disappear. Perhaps my honu is one of the lucky ones.
Sea turtles may be the true ancients of our world. Scientists tell us they have been around for over 150 million years. Hawaiians believe the honu were guides for the first voyagers to these islands. In Chinese mythology, the turtle represents wisdom. In my own childhood, I remembered the turtle’s wisdom whenever I felt overwhelmed. “Slow and steady wins the race” has carried me through many a tough spell. This singular beauty who locked her eyes on mine is more than just another turtle. She’s a survivor.
Suddenly, my worries seem small indeed. If the honu can survive the dinosaurs, the ice age, man and mysterious disease, certainly we humans can survive a little economic blip. I’m putting my trust in the ancients. Spontaneous healing isn’t a myth. It just takes a little time.
Exhale. And grab a paddle.