Turtle Watching


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Oceania » Samoa » Upolu
August 16th 2018
Published: August 16th 2018
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We spend most of morning lazing on the beach, and I use this as an opportunity to read up on the history of Samoa.

There seem to a be range of theories on where the Samoans originally came from, but the predominant one is that they travelled here from South East Asia about 3,000 years ago. We’ve noticed the Samoan and Indonesian/Malay words for the number five are both "lima", which is surely more that just a coincidence.

The European powers started to take some interest in the islands in the 1800s, mostly due to demand from the chocoholics in their homelands for cocoa, and in 1889 Britain, Germany and the United States all sent warships to Apia and a major conflict seemed likely and imminent. Fortunately a big storm destroyed most of the ships, and that was the end of that. Serves them all right I say. The Samoans weren’t too keen on being taken over by anyone, but in 1898 it all started again. Their rebel force was defeated, and in the end it was agreed that the United States would get American Samoa, Germany would get Upolu and Savai’i, and the Brits would walk away provided the Germans gave up any claims to Tonga or the Solomon Islands. The poor old Samoans didn’t seem to get too much of a say in any of this. They’d been happily minding their own business for 3,000 years until this lot barged in and upset the apple cart; who did these great powers think they were? Did they really believe it was worth the risk of a major conflict for the right to get a bit of chocolate out of a bunch of small remote islands whose population at the time was only around 30,000?

When World War I began, the New Zealanders marched in and took over from the Germans without any resistance, and they then ruled Samoa until independence in 1962. The New Zealanders proved to be unpopular rulers. In 1929 a peaceful demonstration by a Samoan resistance group in Apia ended with the New Zealand police opening fire with a machine gun, killing the resistance leader and ten others, in what is now referred to as Black Saturday. The Samoans must be a very forgiving people; the vast majority of tourists here seem to be New Zealanders, and the locals don’t seem to mind feeding them. That said we don’t know what they might be slipping into their food. I hope that we don’t get mistaken for New Zealanders. In 2002 the New Zealand Government officially apologised for its role in Black Saturday and other similar incidents.

In 1997 Samoa changed its name from Western Samoa to Samoa. This didn’t go over too well with the Americans, who thought that it would diminish the status of American Samoa. I think that they should just get over it, and while they’re at it hand American Samoa back to the Samoans. I think this comment will probably have earned me a spot in the Donald’s little black book, which I suspect is probably not all that little any more. I think it might be a good idea if we waited to visit the Good Ole U S of A until the Donald was safely out of the way.

This afternoon we have arranged a snorkeling trip in search of turtles. Our guide’s name is Tupu, and we are joined by a couple from Christchurch.

Tupu is clearly passionate about his country and its wildlife. He tells us that he took a group of Chinese tourists birdwatching a few days ago. I ask him whether lots of Chinese tourists come to Samoa, and quickly sense that I may have hit a raw nerve. He says that the Chinese are very clever. He says that they take pictures of all the handicrafts they see here in Samoa, make replicas of them back in China at a fraction of the cost, and then sell them in competition with the local craftsmen. He says that the Chinese government has built schools and hospitals here in Samoa apparently for free. On the surface of it it looks like the Samoan government is getting a good deal, but he says he’s not so sure. He says that the Chinese don’t give any of the construction jobs to Samoans; they all go to imported Chinese labourers. He tells us that the Chinese use inferior materials, and things that should last for forty years only end up lasting for ten, and the Samoans then need to replace them at their own cost. I tell him that there was a news story on Australian TV a few months ago reporting that the Chinese Government was doing this exact same thing in many other of the poorer Pacific island nations. The story said that Chinese were aiming to ingratiate themselves with the islands’ governments, thereby gaining strategic local leverage and a firmer regional foothold.

I hope that the Chinese Government doesn’t monitor travel blogs. I think they probably do. I think they probably monitor everything, and if so I’m probably now on a Chinese black list as well as being an entry in the Donald’s black book. The world’s two superpowers on the same day; I’m on a roll. I wonder if I’ll only get thrown in jail and tortured if I try to visit either of these places, or whether they’ll have their spies out hunting me down wherever I am. I think that I may have to go into hiding.

We ask Tupu about the large numbers of dogs we’ve seen wandering along the sides of the roads here. He tells us that Samoans love dogs. He says that local farmers all need to have dogs to keep away wild pigs and stop them from destroying their taro crops. He says that when the dogs get too old the farmers usually take them out into the middle of nowhere and abandon them. I don’t think that Samoans can love dogs all that much. This is unbelievably sad. Issy asks Tupu if there is a dog rescue service in Samoa, but I think we all know the answer before she’s even finished asking the question.

The road into the beach has been badly eroded, so we need to park the car and walk the rest of the way. Tupu says that he used to take his clients out to see the turtles in a motor boat, but he found that this was scaring the turtles away, so he’s now needed to revert to kayaks, either with or without outriggers. He paddles us out to the reef, and we start snorkelling. Tupu says that parts of the reef have been damaged quite badly by recent cyclones, and also by the devastating 2009 earthquake and tsunami which destroyed 20 villages and is estimated to have killed more than 100 people, many of them children. We manage to see five turtles in all, as well as a lot of spectacular fish and intact coral. The turtles look very graceful gliding through the water in their natural environment, and are a far cry from the turtles we saw in the so called sanctuary we went to in Savai’i which Tupu likens to a turtle prison. It is a very enjoyable afternoon.

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