Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stone turtles, phantom cetaceans and flying fish: the Rant goes to Turtle Island

This article was originally printed in the September Issue of 24*7 Magazine, which is available in interesting places islandwide.

I found myself on the bow of a Honge Cruise Ship leaving the port of Wushi, in Toucheng City, Ilan. It was a cloudy June day but we could see Turtle Island in the distance. You can nearly always see Turtle Island in the distance in Ilan, quietly dancing in the waves, ten kilometers to the east. My girlfriend’s father had arranged the trip and I was excited to finally step onto the island I had been catching glimpses of for nearly a decade; I was also excited at the possibility of seeing whales and dolphins frolicking in the waters there.

Turtle (Gueishan) Island is Ilan’s most recognizable symbol. Not just a clever name, the island is shaped like a turtle with a flat, triangular tail, domed carapace and its head raised out of the water. The tail even shifts with the seasonal currents though no one has seen it move except in stories, but this is an island packed with stories; tales that overlap, contradict each other and fade into the Ilan mists.

Scientists and storytellers are still debating the origins of this giant stone turtle. The storytellers claim that the island was created after a torrid love affair between the Lanyang Princess and the Turtle Commander. The tale sounds a lot like the Chinese Lover’s Day story of the Cowherd and the Weaver’s Daughter. The princess and the commander fell in love, and tried to run away together. They were busted by the Sea Dragon King who, in a fit of anger, or jealousy, turned the princess into the Lanyang Plain and the commander into Gueishan Island, separating the lovers forever on opposite sides of the rough waters. (1) Scientists weakly point out that the island is volcanic and was created by the violent eruptions of Taiwan’s only remaining active volcano 7000 years ago. (2) Likely story, decide for yourself.

The island was first settled by fishermen in 1854. Some stories say they mistook the island for Keelung, others suggest they were fleeing Taiwanese gangsters. During Japanese occupation, the little school taught in Japanese and a tower was built on the top of the shell. When ROC forces retook the island they tunneled into it and built underground networks of tunnels leading to guns hidden in the cliffs similar to installations built in the Matsu and Kinman Island groups. The ROC military has always been phenomenal at tunneling, often by hand.

In 1977, the ROC military removed the remaining thousand residents and closed the island except to authorized military personnel. Their former home was designated a live fire zone. The official story is that they left voluntarily, but I wonder about that. After twenty years of firing stuff at and around it, they allowed scientists on to study the biodiversity and the volcanic aspects of the island. (3) It is now said to house radar equipment.

In 2000, the island was reopened with certain restrictions, as it is still under military control. Passports, ARC’s or ID cards must be submitted with the application to visit, guests are limited to 350 a day with a maximum stay of two hours. Authorities attribute these travel restrictions to efforts to protect the island’s unique and fragile eco-system. According to the Degree Confluence Project, “Today the island is equipped with super-sensitive radar equipment that keeps a watch on China’s submarines and ‘fishing’ vessels.” (4)
I got the feeling it had more to do with security than they were letting on.

My ulterior motive for making this pilgrimage to the holy turtle had nothing to do with unmasking Taiwan’s secret offshore nuclear arsenal. No, I had wanted to catch a glimpse, maybe even a photo, of the cetacean world that was rumored to be located around the island. Whale watching web pages had informed me that Taiwan has the fastest growing whale watching industry in the world. They also said the jewels of Formosa’s whale watching crown were the waters around the stone turtle.

A light rain had most of our compatriots in the cabins while my girlfriend, her uncles, and I were being comfortably misted above decks. I scanned the horizon continuously from port to starboard; arid terms like left and right had been left somewhere on the quays and jetties of Toucheng. We didn’t see any whales on the forty minute journey to the island, but I reasoned they were probably hanging out on the far side of the island bathing in the warmth of the offshore volcanic fumaroles.

The Taiwan Cetacean Society says that out of the 76 species of cetaceans worldwide, 28 had been seen off Taiwan. (5) I was so excited to see a sperm whale, or even a dwarf sperm; humpbacks, killer whales, false killer whales, pygmy killer whales, maybe even a massive blue. The Taipei Times did concede that actual whale sightings made up only ten percent of cetacean sightings, so if there were no whales there would at least be dolphins; bottlenose, pan tropical, spinners, and possibly even the rare Chinese finless porpoise. (6) I hoped I had brought enough memory sticks.

The available tourist information on Turtle Island reads like this, “People moved to Turtle Island in the mid nineteenth century and decided to leave in the late seventies when presumably advances in electric razors and disco balls pulled them back to the main island they had fled, and then the ROC military moved onto the island. They stayed until the millennium, and then turned the island over to tourism and research, allocating the small area of the tail for tourists and leaving the remainder for conservation and research.” It sounds like the North American, South African or Israeli mythologies that describe brave settlers arriving in wild, empty frontiers. Fairy tales are so quaint.

The boat reached the concrete dock which is built offshore and connected by a thick steel bridge. Docking is quite exciting. The boat pounds into the floats on the dock and the crew start nearly throwing the passengers off and encouraging them to run to the bridge. Then some really big waves come in partway through the disembarking and the boat was ripped back out to sea. They did a circle and came back to throw the other half of the passengers onto the concrete. This was a new dock; the old one had been destroyed by a typhoon shortly after the island was re-opened for tourists. Maybe the Sea Dragon God is still trying to maintain the Turtle Commander’s isolation.

Once we were ashore, we walked beyond the bridge up to a place where everyone had to stop for a bit. Then a policeman gave back our ID’s and we were allowed to go into the visitor center and watch a video which tells you everything you need to know about the island, if you understand Taiwanese. I didn’t notice any English, or even Chinese, screenings offered later in the day. Then a guide, speaking fluent Taiwanese, took us on a walk around the tail trail that starts near the temple. It was built in 1854 as the Gonglan Temple dedicated to Matsu but was changed to the Putouyen Temple dedicated to Guanying after the islanders left. (7) With the fishermen gone there was less need of Matsu and with the arrival of the military there was perhaps a need for Guanying’s mercy; mercy that arrived too late for the islanders.

Beyond the temple were an abandoned concrete school and homes sitting, beside Guei Lake with Guanying perched on the distant shore. Then we walked to the tunnels and saw the big gun placements that remained inside. Finally, we walked back around the lake and touched the cold spring on the far side; an odd thing to find on a 2.7 square kilometer island housing an active volcano.

We waited at the dock as the boat almost docked twice and got lucky on the third try. Getting on was as exciting as getting off, with the added aspect of trying to find your lifejacket. As the boat slammed against the dock, having the lifejacket seemed more important than it had behind the jetties at the harbor. The captain took the scenic route back around the far side of the turtle. As you approach the offshore fumaroles, the water turns a magnificent royal blue and the smell of sulfur gets stronger. The fumaroles are like a giant Jacuzzi jet four or five meters across and ten meters offshore. There were giant yellow bubbles rushing to the surface emerging down below at temperatures up to 116 (8) degrees Celsius.

It was an impressive sight, but we still hadn’t seen any whales, or dolphins. They weren’t going to show; the growing number of whale watching cruises have been driving the number of sightings way down. (9) The whales don’t seem to appreciate big boats chasing them at high speeds. Go figure. Then I looked down at the water and saw something break the surface going very fast. It must’ve had a 60 cm wingspan keeping it about six inches above the surface forever. I saw flights of well over fifty meters. The flying fish I had seen before were more like jumping fish; these were like gliders. We also saw a type of eel that jumps out of the water and uses its tail as a rudder, but it was the flying fish that had me transfixed. I had never seen such a graceful fish. My students told me they do it to get away from predators. They saw it on Discovery.

As we rode the bow back to the harbor we found out one of my girlfriend’s uncles had left Taiwan at age twenty as a sailor. He told stories about sailing to Buenos Aries, and the Mediterranean and all points between until his mom hid his passport on a return trip and forbade him to return to the sea. That was thirty years ago and he was a businessman now, but he said seeing the fish reminded him of his years as a sailor. Whenever they would sail in the tropics there would be flying fish. They would set up a light on the bow and then work from four to midnight. Then he and his mates would go see how many flying fish they had caught. He said they make a delicious soup.

* Three hour tours operate from May to October for around 1000 NT. For permission to visit Turtle Island go online to the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area website at http://www.necoast-nsa.gov.tw/


(1) Degree Confluence Project

(2) Mysterious Island Draws Visitors, Taiwan Journal, July 1st, 2003.

(3) Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, National University of Singapore.

(4) Degree Confluence Project

(5) Taiwan showing great potential for whale and dolphin watching: expert China Post, June 21st, 2002

(6) Dancing dolphins entertain the masses Taipei Times, September 24th, 2004.

(7) Mysterious Island Draws Visitors, Taiwan Journal, July 1st, 2003.

(8) Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, National University of Singapore.

(9) Dancing dolphins entertain the masses Taipei Times, September 24th, 2004.


Laurie 'inane comment' Schneider said...

When Marc and I got married on Kauai we went on a fantastic whale watching tour. Saw humpback whales, spinner dolphins, a rare monk seal and even some humping turtles. Mmmmmmm.....humping turtles.......

javieth said...

I love this blog, is really amazing. The turtles are my favorite animal because they are quiet and they never represent a danger for anybody. This is the main reason why i love it.
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