Turtle Medicine: The Art of Swimming Sideways

You are about to embark on a journey to the shores of the stunning Hawaiian Islands and dive into the spiritual and psychological gifts of “Honu”, the beloved Green Sea Turtle.

You’ll be introduced to 13 actual Honu from rescue centers whose human-given names offer qualities that help us navigate life’s turbulent challenges. Their characteristics teach us to negotiate rough waters by tilting our perceptions just as Honu themselves turn sideways to avoid being dashed onto sharp lava. After absorbing Turtle Medicine, you may find Honu swimming into your life, helping steer you through rough waters to help you ashore and then bask with you in the calm.

Click on the image below to read an excerpt from the book


Table of Contents
The Strength of Innocence
Awash in Greed: The Desire to Possess
The Wisdom of the Heart: Giving and Receiving Aloha
Intrepid: Navigating Physical and Emotional Pain
Learning Effortless Joy During the Journey
Peace Emanating From Within
Mysteries of the Deep: Creation, Duality, and Beneficence
Caught by our Human Shadow
Alone and Together: Surfing the Tides
Holding Life as a Gift
Body Aging
Mind Aging
Spirit Aging: The Great Release

I became captivated by turtles from the moment they first began swimming into my consciousness. Their self-sufficiency, soft presence, and innocence astounded me. Their large black eyes and turned-up noses activated my mother instincts, and their wide, oblong bodies won my admiration for their ability to navigate rough seas. I felt a distinct calling from their innate qualities directly to my heart and mind. I paid attention, and believed everything my imagination offered. This book has been the result.

The Hawaiian name for these engaging turtles is “Honu.” They are the Green Sea Turtles of the Hawaiian Islands. Though recently endangered, they are making a gradual comeback. For many, Honu represent longevity, safety and mana, meaning ‘spiritual energy.’ According to Sabine Hendreschke, native Hawaiians think of them as the bearers of good luck and peace, sometimes even worshipping them as ancestral spirit guides whose wisdom protects the Hawaiians all their lives). With such human reverence, it is not surprising that Honu create such a powerful sense of awe and magic.

While bitter winter drifts into my homeland of Montana, I have migrated far south, snorkeling in late afternoon on the busy south shore of Kaua`i’s Poʻipū Beach. Disappointed because I have been unable to snorkel where I would most like, as the surf is too high, I am taking a short swim and snorkel directly off a small beach instead. Softening in the ocean’s embrace, I release my addictive urge for the “better snorkel,” the amazing encounter. I wonder if I can simply appreciate the great gift of rocking in the ocean as the sun begins to set. My Inner Critic rather rudely agrees:

Right. Can’t you just be unspoiled and happy for what you have?

I do not like that inner critic. It makes me feel guilty and wrong and child-like. So I just breathe it out and lose its echo while trying not to bump into other snorkelers. Instead, I turn my attention to bits of seaweed floating past my mask, and after just a few more paddles, do not see anyone else around me. I am relieved to be alone with the rocking of the ocean and several large parrotfish clothed in neon pinks, greens, and blues, who are eyeing me as—what— a possible rival? I realize I’m wearing a bright pink, green, and blue bathing suit that looks rather like one of them. I can’t help laughing.

While chuckling through my snorkel, I am suddenly aware of something moving off to my left. I turn to look, and a huge Green Sea Turtle is swimming close to the surface right beside me. My first encounter! I’d seen nature specials about them on television but I had never seen one in person. In the midst of shock and joy, I assess the top and undersides of his lovely shelled body. He turns his rounded head with large dark eyes towards me while he keeps paddling along. His top shell is huge and mottled like a brown striated puzzle; his underside boasts a lighter and less detailed yellow-tan. We both keep swimming the same direction, but our heads keep turning toward each other. Soon I stop mentally absorbing him and move into some kind of altered state. I am transfixed, mesmerized. As when humans are in love, suddenly there is no one else except the two of us, who somehow become one. Sounds cease and so do thoughts. We are together for what seems like a long time, bobbing along, plumbing the ocean depths, and taking in each other’s energy.

At least I am taking in his. I can’t say for sure what he is doing. Maybe he is benignly curious, or wondering when this thousandth tourist will be leaving his domain. I know that legally I need to keep 20 feet away from him, but he keeps swimming closer to me, inching sideways as the waves continue to loll through us. I am astounded, and wonder if I could dare feel honored. My rational self says he’s just cruising for food, moving to the next reef. My imaginative and sometimes-trustable intuitive self says he may be communicating with me, drawing close to offer some wise animal medicine. I know that many people are fascinated by turtles and feel some sort of inter-species connection, and I am no one special to be the recipient of such focused attention. But at the same time, we all are. Special. Holding these opposites of being so small on the face of the earth and at the same time so important might be something Honu could teach me about. And more. This first encounter continues to sway with me into the evening, even as I return to shore. I wonder what else I will be learning.

Next stop, the northwest coast of the Big Island. This time I am not swimming, but sitting, comfortably ensconced in a large over-stuffed chair in an open-air atrium, right next to a large outdoor juvenile turtle pond at the spiritually resonant Mauna Lani Hotel. These young Honu have been hatched in Oahu, sent here as babies, and when they are large enough, will be ceremonially released into the open ocean on July 4th, their own Independence Day. Turtles get an Independence Day! What a creative decision on the part of their protectors. I am fascinated by the Honu’s movements in this small habitat; clean, effortless swipes of flat pads of front and back feet, gliding them around boulders and potentially hazardous a’a lava (the “ouch” type) and onto the smoother pahoehoe lava shores so they can bask in the sun. I notice that most of these captive turtles rest with their heads partially submerged, sleepily raising their little bulbs above water and opening bird-shaped beaks only to gulp a bit of air and then sink their heads back into their watery home.

I am not an animal behaviorist or biologist or ecologist; I just find that I tend to become serially fascinated by certain animals. So, while I have researched a bit about my newest loves—turtles—and have convened with the knowledgeable staff at this ecologically-aware hotel, I write primarily from lessons and metaphors I have received while gazing at turtle behaviors, lessons which have taught me how to live well.

A Hawaiian man I met who can trace his family lineage back to his Polynesian roots recently told me that it is no coincidence that the powerful Hawaiian name for “Earth” is Honua and the name for “turtle” is Honu. He explained that his culture recognizes that we carry the Earth as our shell, the way Honu carries a map of the Earth in the patterns of its own shell. Certain other indigenous cultures (especially North American Indian tribes) also have a similar description of turtles as carrying the Earth on their backs. Cultures who have turtles swimming in their waters seem to keenly feel the importance of these watery citizens. Though I will never know the depths of this embedded appreciation the way a Hawaiian does, because of my own rather disenfranchised Northern European ancestry, I search for belonging. I find that opening to relatedness offered by the natural world is a fine way to connect and gather sustenance for the challenges of living.

The subtitle for this book, “The Art of Swimming Sideways,” was initially crafted from hours of gazing at turtles who were attempting to land from the open ocean at Puako, now a residential tract but once an ancient ceremonial site, north of Kona, Hawaii. I watched how the incoming tide would push the turtles perilously close to the sharp reef shores. I worried that their heads or legs or even shells might get deeply scratched from the power of the constant wave action. Yet, what I began to notice is that, as each surge carried the turtles closer to danger, they would simply turn their impossibly ungainly-looking oblong bodies sideways and glide around the jagged edges, allowing the continued force of water to carry them effortlessly into shore. Once on shore, though they had to lug themselves up on land, they were comparatively scratch-free, accomplishing what looked to be a huge feat with utter ease. The metaphor did not escape me. If our own turtle nature could only allow the force of life to be what it is, pushing and insistent and constant, and we could learn to flex our own selves to get to shore and rest by finding how to maneuver sideways, we, too, might arrive safe and unharmed. What does it mean to maneuver sideways? That question intrigued me and spurred countless hours of reflection, observation, and swimming with turtles while breathing into the center of my heart.

My heart was further warmed to discover many dedicated turtle research and educational centers throughout the islands: among them are Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Save The Sea Turtles International, Pacific Whale Foundation, South Maui Marine Turtle Stranding Network, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Turtle Watch program, and Mālama Nā Honu, which has brilliantly given both Hawaiian and English names to many of the Green Sea Turtles who have come onto its radar. Mālama Nā Honu’s main goal is “protection and preservation in the spirit of Aloha,” primarily through education. Several of the names they gave to their various turtles suggested the very themes I wished to cover in this book, so I selected the relevant ones to grace the start of each chapter.

When we begin to focus on one animal, we invariably become aware of its environment. In this case, Honu brought me to deeper contemplation of the vast ocean itself, and also to one of Honu’s largest neighbors, the humpback whales, who yearly visit the islands to calve and mate before returning to Alaska. Because Honu share the same waters with these giants, you will find whale experiences also surfacing in certain chapters.

A note about the indented and italicized comments sprinkled throughout. These are not the sections at the outset of each chapter explaining the turtle name and giving information about them. They are the brief one-to-two-sentence comments springing from three different voices I’ve identified as an Inner Teacher, an Inner Critic, and a group who live beyond my own ordinary consciousness whom I identify as Spirit Beings. These three voices are notated throughout the text simply as Teacher, Critic, and Spirit. I also share my own asides from time to time, not prefaced by any identifier. These voices surprised me by rather loudly interjecting themselves in my inner ear at various revision intervals, ultimately helping me see in retrospect what I could not see as I first wrote. I found them to be rich, challenging, humbling, and frustrating, according to how and when each voice arose. They deepened my process and understanding throughout, and caused me to ponder the magic and power of Honu at ever deepening levels.

Honu display many qualities that benefit humans. Each chapter that follows explores a different aspect of how turtles teach us what it means to be human and what it means to live well. Anyone willing to engage with the Turtle Medicine of the Green Sea Turtle could experience Honu’s gentle wisdom, quiet love, and pure innocence. Or perhaps your own experience will be slightly different, yet still one that will enliven you as my own has enlivened me. Life can be so hard; we owe it to ourselves to swim into the greatest beauty we can find and harvest the most goodness out of it that we can. And then give back. Time spent recording impressions from observing, meditating with, and swimming near turtles has been a great pleasure. Hopefully, the realizations shared here will enhance your own, and you will discover, or re-discover, your own talent for swimming sideways.
Honu can teach you even when you aren’t with them.

Green Sea Turtle Facts
While general information about Honu varies slightly between various organizations, estimates of lifespan range from 50-80 years, even up to 100.1 Though their exact ancestry has been disputed, the first proto-turtles, whose fossils have been found near China, lived about 220 million years ago. The contemporary genetic strain of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is a distinct sub-population of the larger species. These particular turtles apparently don’t breed with any other type of green sea turtle found around the world, and travel exclusively through the Hawaiian Islands and to the Frigate Shoals over 500 miles away, where many journey to lay their eggs.

Green Sea Turtles are the largest of all the hard-shell turtles, growing up to three feet long and averaging about 350 pounds. Though reported to be able to remain underwater for hours without coming up for air, when actively swimming, they must surface to breathe every few minutes. With nonretractable flippers and an only partially retractable head, these turtles seem very vulnerable. However, their shell is very hard, and the oblong, thick shape makes it hard for predators to crush it in their jaws. In addition, when threatened, turtles can bite, hit with their flippers, and can travel up to 35 miles an hour, about as fast as a shark. In spite of their shell and swimming speed, sharks are still their main ocean predator; although fishing nets, motors from boats, and human killing have, by some estimates, exceeded the threat from sharks in taking a deadly toll.

Turtles will often leave beaches and not lay eggs if beach trash is present or because of too much human noise and activity. Over 90% of hatchlings do not survive. In addition to natural predation, artificial beach and parking lot lights seem to draw the hatchlings away from the ocean and toward the parking lots and into streets, where they get run over or die of exposure.

Until they were placed on the endangered species list in 1978, Honu were routinely killed for their edible eggs, lovely amber shells, and their meat. Their fat is green, due to the adult diet of sea grass and algae, and is the source of the name, Green Sea Turtle.

Personal Observations
Honu are non-aggressive, sometimes playful, and often curious.12 Regarding intelligence, studies have shown one species of turtle to be better at learning to navigate mazes than white rats. Turtles are considered to be social creatures, sometimes monogamous and other times promiscuous.13 Remind you of another species?

These turtles somehow charm most everyone who sees them. Their large brown eyes and quiet ways endear them to many humans. Benign and graceful, they lilt along with flippers that, at the top of their stroke, for all the world, look like graceful angel wings. They offer needful reminders of some of our best human potentials. Honu have certainly worked their magic on me.

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