Turtling in the Arnavon Islands
Hawksbill turtles are one of the most critically endangered sea turtles in the world. We went to one of the few places where they are thriving – the Arnavon Islands.
The Arnavon Islands is a group of marine protected islands located between Choiseul Province and Isabel Province. The most common route to the Arnavons is flying to Suavanao airport and then taking a three to four hour boat ride west from there. Suavanao has a grass runway and the ‘airport’ is half container-half hut manned by one staff member. Understandably, everybody who gets off the plane jumps straight into banana boats to take them somewhere else, including us.
If you’re going to the Arnavons for the turtles, accomodationwise there is the option of staying at the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Centre itself on Kerehikapa Island, or staying halfway between Suavanao and the Arnavons at the expat-run Vavaghio Guest House. Both are good options but staying at the Conservation Centre meant maximising our turtle time: if we missed the turtles in one activity, we had the freedom to give it another go without the 1.5 hour banana boat journey.
What we didn’t take into account is that three hours is ages when you’re on a banana boat. We experienced all of the weathers the Solomons has to offer from burning hot to freezing cold all in the span of three hours. On the plus side we did get to stretch our bum muscles on beautiful atolls like this.
There was much relief when we finally pulled up in front of the Conservation Centre. The rangers and staff came out to greet us and showed us our lodgings, simple, but all equipped with beds, mosquito nets and electricity (via a noisy generator). It seems the long-term plans for the Centre wasn’t to cater for boatloads of guests as four of us slept in a big room with the sign “Education Centre” above it, one wall having a floor-to-ceiling shelf full of dugong and whale bones.
The turtles you can expect to see on Kerehikapa are Green Turtles and Hawksbills. Green turtles lay all-year round, while peak Hawksbill season is June-August. We were lucky enough to see three Hawksbill mothers laying from start to finish as well as two Hawksbills would-be mothers who had started digging nests but decided the conditions weren’t right.
Every morning the rangers walk around the island checking for turtle nests. If they come across a spot of ground that looks like it has been thoroughly kicked up and mashed about, the rangers will check for eggs, put up a sign or a coconut branch with a date scratched on it, and place a metal grate over the top of it to stop metapodes and rats from getting to the eggs.
Hawksbill eggs take around 50-65 days to marinate. The temperature of the nest will determine whether they are males or females. If it’s warm and they hatch on the earlier side, they’ll be females. If it’s cooler, it will take a little longer to hatch and they’ll come out with turtle dongs. If it’s bang on 60 days it means mama dug a Goldilocks (‘this nest is just right’) and it’ll have half males, half females. Most of the time, it’s a nest full of girls or a nest full of boys.
Most turtles, including Hawksbills, lay at night. For guests, this means you’ll be going out from about 8 pm if you want to watch them laying in action. Female turtles only start laying eggs when they’re around 50. After some turtle hanky-panky in the ocean (not an official activity the Conservation Centre has on offer for guests), turtles will return to the beach they were born to lay several times over a few weeks.
Laying eggs is an awkward and slow operation. Mama turtle pulls herself on shore above the tideline where the good nesting spots are – dig a little here, dig a little there, until a spot is found that’s high enough and not too hard. They alternate their back-left and back-right flippers as scoopers then pat the scooped sand to the sides of the hole: left flipper scoop and pat, right flipper scoop and pat, left flipper scoop and pat, rest. Repeat for a good-sized hole.
During this digging time, nosy humans need to be quiet and make sure not to shine too much light. Our proximity would be obvious to any other animal but turtles, they’re not that quick on the uptake. You can get away with using your quiet voice and as long as you’re flicking the torch on away from their eyes they have no idea. After about 30-45 minutes Mama turtle will reach a point when the hole is deep enough, and for Hawksbills, that means it’s time to lay anything between 80-150 eggs.
Once they start laying, turtles seem to become completely oblivious to anything else going on. The first eggs that come out are signal that all the torches can be turned on: the rangers start recording details, wiping sand off the shell, counting barnacles and even tagging them with an oversized stapler.
The first turtle we watched didn’t like the conditions and started heading back to the ocean. The rangers wanted to tag it before it could get away and it took two guys to hold it down – turtles are strong! The second turtle was an old hand – eggs came streaming out like fishballs at a fishball factory. The third turtle made it seem like she was laying watermelons and braced her flippers against the sand before every push.
Once a turtle stops laying, the rangers need to count the eggs and will move/drag the turtle away from the nest before it covers the hole. The rangers have three hours to count the eggs before they stick together and become too brittle to handle. Even though Mama turtle has been dragged three metres away from the nest, this won’t stop her from spending the next half hour kicking sand into a non-existent hole. Any nests found in the morning long after mama has left won’t be counted as they risk breaking the eggs. Fresh turtle eggs feel like slightly slimy, fragile ping-pong balls.
Because the Arnavons has constant egg-laying throughout the year there are always mature nests ready for hatching. When there aren’t any guests, the rangers will leave the baby turtles to hatch by themselves, after which it will take them 3-4 days to dig themselves to the surface. If there are guests, the rangers will dig out the top of a ready nest and give it a few pats to wake up the hatched babies. They will also dig a shallow trench from the nest to the ocean and a finish line to count the turtles as they go over it.
Watching baby turtles stumble out of the nest makes you understand why turtles need to lay several batches of hundreds of eggs. Everything is against baby turtles: how to walk, ditches to fall into, rocks and corals to climb over, logs to get stuck behind, birds, how to swim, big fish, and sharks. Most of these babies are dead men and women turtles walking because only 1 out of 150 will survive to maturity (50), let alone reach their expected 100 years. Once they’re too big for sharks to eat (30ish) their main predators are crocs and humans.
The last thing we got to see was the turtle rodeo, which is exactly what it sounds like. We all got on the boat and motored around until we saw turtle-shaped silhouettes in the water. Turtles in the water are everything they aren’t on land – fast. The rangers stood on the prow of the banana boat and when we were in the right position, surprise attack by diving on top of the turtle and grabbing them at the top of the shell to bring up to the surface.
Once we caught four we headed back to shore to measure and tag them. These were only young 20-30-year-old turtles and some of them had big scratches on their shells from fighting crocs. Tagging a turtle is basically stapling a metal tag on the underside of their front flippers where you would imagine turtle armpits would be. Ordinarily, the rangers would have tagged the two that didn’t already have tags but we’d run out of tags the night before. Hem alraet nomoa, next time.
When you’re not turtling in the Arnavons, the guys can also take you out on the boat to some sweet snorkelling spots. You can also choose to go snorkelling on the same island if you swim out a little way from the lodge. It was at the latter snorkelling site where our friend had an encounter.
The official story is that while he was snorkelling a crocodile popped its head up less than two metres in front of him, showed him its sharp teeth, then went down and disappeared into the water. In retrospect, the conditions were perfect: mangroves + murky water + abundant crocfood like turtles. We heard a shout and looked up to see our friend doing the international signal for gtf-out-of-the-water: two arms extended out straight going up and down in a snapping motion. Word on the street though ended up as Nid being the one who had the croc experience, possibly wrestling the croc to submission. For the record, we don’t know how the stori got twisted but if you prefer this version of the story then we are happy for you to keep retelling it that way.
After walking back to the conservancy, we asked the staff about crocs. “Oh yes, but they’re friendly”, and they mentioned the one or two in the lagoon behind the conservancy as well. Don’t let that put you off coming to the Arnavons though as no one’s been attacked in decades. I assume the crocs here are so polite because croc sea snacks are teeming around these islands. Note that this only applies on the Arnavons – don’t expect the same friendliness anywhere else in Isabel Province.
Visiting the Arnavons was one of our most favourite places we’ve visited in the Solomons. There aren’t many places you can have a casual turtle encounter after breakfast or a spot of turtle laying after dinner. This is a special trip that warrants the extra effort and seleni it takes to get there.
I wanna be a turtle
Even tho birth is a hurdle
I slip, I splash, I flap around
But I always come back
To my Arnavon’s hatching ground
– Lil B.
Photo cred to BB
Contact the Nature Conservancy at email@example.com. They’ll put you in touch with Charis Travel or Solomon Island Travel.
We booked our package through Garedd at Solomon Island Travel.
For a group of eight (4 days, and 3 nights) our package included flights, boat transfers, accommodation, all meals at the lodge, and six activities.
We stayed at the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area for maximum proximity to turtles. Most of the rangers have been at the Conservation Centre for years and years and know a lot about what they do. If you save toktok Pijin, make sure to take some time out to stori with them over a long cup of tea (or stori in English). And, if you bring a ukulele they’ll send you off with the Arnavon Islands anthem.
Accommodation is simple but there is a toilet and a shower facility. If you’re a light sleeper, the Education Centre may not have the right beds for you as there is a loud generator right behind it.
Regarding eats, expect rice, vege, and a fish dish for every meal except breakfast where you’ll get donuts, Solo pancakes and a plate of fruit. Bring your own snacks as there isn’t anywhere to buy other food. Eat the papaya when you see it because all those donuts, pancakes, and rice will take its toll when you weigh yourself at the Suavanao Airport in front of all your frens.
We’ve also heard good things about Vavaghio Guest House.
- Bring snacks, books, board games, and a satellite phone if you have one as you will have no reception for the whole time you are at the Arnavons, like ZERO.
- Suavanao is notorious for cancelled flights. If you get stuck in Suavanao, there is a resort near the airport but it may be difficult to convince them to let you stay the night.
- Bring plenty of snacks and entertainment for just in case – we ended up being stuck for two days.
- Tell your mum you’re going offline for a few does or she may ring your embassy.