You have to assume there are turtles at Turtle Bay on the North Shore of Oahu. That’s what I did. Assume. But what you find at Turtle Bay is an empty dream. There are no turtles there on the west side of the resort hotel. Nor, for that matter, are there any swimmers, surfers or snorkelers. It is just one big bay with lots of coral reef and too little beach. If it’s turtles you want, they say, go farther west, to Kawela Bay.
So that’s what we did.
These are not your garden-variety turtles we sought. The Green Sea turtles of Hawaii are huge. Some, I read, reach 200 pounds or more. We saw them several years ago when we visited Kona on the Big Island. From our condo rental’s lanai at seaside on the south end of Kona, we could look down on a tidal pool and at a certain time of day, the one or two Green Sea turtles would cavort there. Now, I wanted to see the turtles again.
The hike up to Kawela Bay from our condo rental at Turtle Bay is probably a mile. Unless you’re into hopping the sharp-edged coral reef, you take a flat and sandy jeep trail through a jungle that in places is so thick it is impenetrable. Even with a machete, it would take hours to cut through 50 yards of it.
The state of Hawaii is trying to buy three miles of pristine seashore from resort owners. The state wants to save the land from development and is now haggling over the price. One of the tracts is Kahuku Point, the northernmost spot on Oahu. The other is Kawela Bay.
Kawela is a serene place. The big waves that blast elsewhere along the North Shore do not come in here. The bay is as calm as any Minnesota lake on a windless day. And the beach is used mostly by a handful of locals. The fussy resort crowd stays closer home. Kawela in fact is so tame, instructors feel at ease to give surfing lessons here for beginners.
Coming in to Kawela from around the old military bunker at Protection Point, my eyes are trained on the sea. I am looking for a dark object in the water, one that moves when it ought not — and hope it does not have a dorsal fin. And then you wait, I’m told, for the Green Sea turtle to poke up its head for a breath of air. Maybe there will even be one on shore.
But there is nothing. Not on land or sea.
Nebra and I eventually work our way down to the best part of the beach where about 20 others are stretched out in the sand. Some go into the ocean for a dip or to paddle on surfboards. Nebra dons rented snorkel gear — the mask, breathing tube and flippers — and slips into the water.
Within 20 minutes, a disappointed Nebra returns to the sand. No fish and of course no turtles. The water is so clouded with sediment, she says, that she could barely see her hands. The recent high winds have stirred up the North Shore beaches so much that the surf appears brown in places.
A heavy young woman on a towel next to us has had Achilles surgery on both feet. She is as helpless on land as a sea turtle. And nearly as large. Helped from the sea by a woman friend, she begins to sketch the bay with a colored pencil. No turtle can do that.
As late afternoon approaches, we head back toward the condo. It is still on our minds to see turtles, and there is one other beach down the highway about 10 miles that supposedly gets the Green Sea turtle. I can’t remember its official name, but some call it Turtle Beach.
But, again, disappointment. By the time we reach Turtle Beach it is dark and, like a lot of minor beaches on North Shore, there appears no access from the Kamehameha Highway, the busy, two-lane artery that runs along North Shore. But we gave it a try.
In the end, we saw only “the little sea turtles,” as I called them.
There were five of them out at the northeast corner of Kawela where modest 5-foot waves occasionally roll in, kids, beginning surfers, that would not dare stick a toe in the violent thrashings to the west at fabled Waimea Bay. Many of the North Shore beaches are sealed off this week by yellow crime tape with signs saying the surf is too dangerous.
We layed down on beach towels and watched them for a while, a few adults nearby shouting out encouragement. Whether you are a world-class surfer that competes for the Triple Crown at Waimea, Banzai and Sunset beaches or an amateur, the technique is always the same.
You paddle away from shore, the stomach flat on the board, and at a mysterious point, probably dictated by instinct, you stop and sit up and stare out at the sea, waiting for the next good wave, for not all waves are created equal. Finding the good one, you push off, quickly rise to your feet and try to ride the wave toward shore.
Our little turtles, though, did not ride far, some of them only a few feet before crashing into the foam beneath their tanned feet. Some admit failure, and leap into the water, no hesitation. But they try again. You have to admire that.
Sadly, the only big turtle we saw all day was the one painted on the outlooking wing of the Turtle Bay Resort hotel.
So, no turtles at Turtle Bay. It doesn’t seem right.
For the real thing, I guess, we’ll have to try again on our next visit to Oahu.
All of this has led me to at least one conclusion. Call something “turtle” up here on North Shore, be it beach or bay, and you will find no real-life turtles at all.