“It’s not banned,” said a visiting representative from Marine Resources, “We recognise it’s a cultural practice and that they have their own ways of regulating and protecting the species.”
For a number of years, the Kau Wo Wolo in Pukapuka did not allow the killing of sea turtle and last year, because of the number of turtles found in the lagoon and nesting, opened it again.
It’s not a common practice and no one these days goes expressly hunting for turtle. If someone happens to find a turtle nesting or while out fishing and it’s easy to catch, then it might become a feast.
One turtle feeds a whole village. It only happens a few times a year.
This is all to say that the other night, we ate turtle.
For me, eating turtle felt forbidden, novel, and a once in a lifetime event.
“You haven’t eaten turtle before?” asked Annie Williams one of the chefs.
“I ate it once at Motu Kotawa as a child,” I said “but I don’t remember.”
“Loto Village ate turtle maybe three times last year,” she said, “and Ngake once, am not sure about Yato.”
I didn’t know how we would eat the turtle, but it turns out its usually stewed with the non-stew meat baked in the imu overnight.
“We used my recipe,” said Annie, “onion, curry powder, and soy sauce slow cooked for about eight hours.”
Since we are still in the akatawa system, everyone gathered at Tawalalo for the cooking and the sharing out of the turtle stew.
Children got their share first. The older children grabbed succulent pieces from the younger children who cried in vain. I took a child’s portion in case I didn’t like it. Of course, it tasted delicious. It had a rich pungent red meat taste and soft and ocean like. It tasted like sea-goat – as in similar to goat but more sea.
While we ate, Annie told me the story of how Aluia and Kalo caught him.
It turns out one of the easiest ways of catching turtle is while they are having sex. “The turtles swim too fast to catch easily,” she said, “so no one really catches them unless they find them having sex on the surface of the water. They should go underwater to have sex instead of the surface,” she laughed.
“So Aluia and Kalo were out fishing and they saw these two turtles having sex on the surface of the water. The timing has to be either before they start or after they finish because once they are locked together it is impossible to get them apart. Lucky, they had just started so Aluia and Kalo tried to get both turtles but only managed to get the male.”
Upon returning from fishing, everyone came down to the beach to see the wonu.
The next day, a group of men killed him. I didn’t watch. The women cooked him into the stew with the shell and head and other parts put into the imu. The next morning I went to the imu to see what was left, but by the time I arrived the rest of the turtle had been eaten with only bones left. “We eat every part of the turtle,” said Annie, “everything gets eaten with only the bones left. The female turtle tastes even better, this one was a male.” I could see craving it, but its not like you can go to the grocery store and purchase turtle.
Always having grown up by the Pacific Ocean, the majestic sea turtles have been a kind of sea protector for me. They look like old wise men and women, prehistoric from the time of dinosaurs. Sea turtles can live to one hundred and fifty years old or even longer. The one we ate had probably lived one hundred years. “I didn’t really want to eat something that old that will take another hundred years to replenish,” said Jari Zapp the Czech English teacher at Niua School. “I feel really badly about eating turtle,” I told Annie. “Don’t feel badly,” she said, “feel grateful.” And I did. I don’t imagine eating turtle again in my life, but having eaten turtle there’s a way that the majestic sea creature and all its history feels a part of me. When I see them now, there’s a pang of guilt and then even more awe and respect.
- Amelia Borofsky from Pukapuka