Tales from Barbados: At one with the turtles

What a young woman and a four legged, shelled reptile have in common

In our third "Tales" series, columnist Rachel A.G. Gilman remembers her first snorkeling experience in the heart of the Caribbean.

Before my mother even thought of having me, she'd had beach days soaked in daiquiris and sunscreen along the coastline of Barbados, a bi-annual vacation with friends. I'd grown up hearing about the magical little island and wearing the t-shirts to bed with the destination scrawled across the front. I'd always wanted to experience it myself. A month before I turned twenty-one, she decided to share it with me during my spring break vacation.

As excited as I was for the feeling of white sand under my feet, the cost effective rum between my lips, and the opportunity for relaxation all over my body, I was most excited to go snorkeling with hawksbill turtles.

Rachel A.G. Gilman

I was fit with a snorkel mask and large, webbed rubber fins while still on land. I didn't read the waiver before I signed away my rights to legal action should something go wrong. Nothing would. I was in the middle of what pops up if you were to Google image search "paradise." And more importantly, I was completing an item on my bucket list.

In my denim shorts and striped cotton blouse, my polkadot bikini underneath, I swam out with my fellow passengers to the boat, stripping down once on board. Everything felt like such an obstacle to getting to the turtles: the life vests, the passing rain cloud, the reggae music coming from the speaker next to my seat.

The boat took off, driving a small distance before anchoring again further into Carlisle Bay. I tightened my goggles, slipped on my flippers, and jumped off the edge of the boat into the water before I could think to be nervous about it.

Salty water submerged my skin. Sun baked my tan shoulders. But I couldn't see the turtles anywhere. "Swim around," the guides said. "Be quiet and respectful. Don't dangle your fingers or they might nip you." I followed instructions and swam a bit away from the group, in the opposite direction. Fish swarmed between my toes and across the backs of my legs, but no turtles. I kept swimming. In the distance, a saw a green, orb-shaped body approaching. I bobbed up and down in the water but didn't move.

The turtle swam up close. I had only ever seen one contained within a glass case in an aquarium. She felt so much more relatable without the barrier between us.I could see everything: her blurry eyes (turtles have notoriously bad vision), her patterned flippers, and her leathery shell.

"If you're careful, you can touch her," one of the guides said when I poked my head above the water.

I reached my hand out and gently caressed her shell, which was just as rough and bumpy as it looked. The small, silver turtle charm on the single bracelet on my wrist also touched her shell. The turtle moved her head slightly toward me before slowly swimming underneath me. Her body touched my stomach and I simultaneously laughed and smiled, feeling a sort of ease I have yet to experience again.

I think the turtle might have felt the same, a pleased expression on her mouth as she swam away.

Rachel A.G. Gilman

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