Samoan sea turtles (I’a sa)
In Samoan folklore, sea turtles were believed to have the power to save fishermen who were lost at sea by bringing them safely to shore. The Samoan word for sea turtle, “I’a sa,” translates literally to “sacred fish”, presumably because of this ability. In times past, Samoans traditionally harvested sea turtles for food, and the shell was often made into bracelets, combs, fishing hooks. It also was used in the headpiece worn by a princess during important dance ceremonies. Turtles were incorporated into Samoan songs and art, and there are even turtle petroglyphs (rock carvings) in Faga’itua and Leone.
And, there’s the legend about the Turtle and Shark that appear in the sea at Vaitogi when villagers sing a special song. It therefore seems extra unfortunate that turtle numbers in Samoa have declined so much that they are now considered endangered species. Although it is difficult to determine how many are left, it is clear that few females lay eggs each year in the Territory. This drop parallels the worldwide decline of sea turtles due to overharvest, loss of nesting beaches, and incidental kills in fishing gear. Pacific populations of one of our species (hawksbills) are “rapidly approaching extinction” according to a scientific review in 1998.
Two turtle species, the green and hawksbill, are the most frequently found turtles in our local waters. The hawksbill or “laumei uga” (Eretmochelys imbricata) is usually the species that nests on Tutuila beaches. This is a solitary nester, and perhaps only 1 or 2 hawksbill females now use a suitable beach. The hawksbill is occasionally poisonous — in the late 1950s, people in Aunu’u got very sick after eating one.
Our other species is the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), named after the color of its fat. It is also found around our islands, but it nests primarily at Rose Atoll. These long-lived turtles have rather complicated life cycles that involve repeated long-distance migrations to and from American Samoa. They start life as eggs buried in beach sand. Once a female has laid her first group of about 100 eggs, she will return at 2-week intervals to lay more. In about 60 days, the eggs hatch and the little turtles dart into the ocean. Where they go is not known, but eventually they take up residence at some feeding area that may be far away from American Samoa.
There they remain for some 20-25 years until they become sexually mature, at which time they return to the very same beach where they came from. After laying eggs there, the adult females then turn around and go back to their distant feeding grounds. That’s the basic pattern for most sea turtle species throughout the world. Swim far away to some nesting beach, then swim back to their feeding area, back and forth every few years thereafter.