The unlikely sea turtle saviour

The unlikely sea turtle saviour
PHOTO: BBC Travel (Amanda Ruggeri)

This was no usual boat cruise. Rousing Chinese music, sounding more patriotic than pop, blared out of the speakers. The motorboat operator wore the sea foam-green shirt of the Chinese Coast Guard's police force.

Motoring through the harbour, we passed one floating home after another - each a small house built on a wooden platform over the water, with red paper lanterns in the corners and laundry flapping on the washing lines.

Although I was a visitor in the floating village of Lingshui, located just off the South China Sea island of Hainan, the boat ride wasn't for me. It was for my seven-year-old travel companion.

At 75kg, he already was so large that he could barely squeeze into the space at the motorboat's stern. Eager to get into the water, he bucked his head and flapped his flippers.

After all, it would be his first time tasting freedom. Raised in captivity, the green turtle was going to be released after this boat ride, his movements charted by satellite communication with the 17cm antenna that rose from his shell.

A floating fishing village with 4,500 residents, Lingshui is also, quietly, home to something else: Sea Turtles 911, China's only non-profit focused on saving sea turtles.

Most sea turtle species are endangered, and, along with climate change and coastal development, fishermen have historically been one of their main threats.

In coastal areas worldwide, both sea turtle meat and eggs are considered culinary delicacies, while the shells have been good luck symbols for centuries in Asia, thought to have medicinal properties and coveted for ornamentation and jewellery.

Even now that the sea turtle trade is illegal, both by Chinese and international law, all parts can fetch high prices on the black market. As a result, selling turtles is a tempting option that has devastated sea turtle populations.

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