Ortin King’s accent catches you off guard. It’s a deep brown, polished mahogany voice. Resplendent in its richness, it’s redolent of Bequia, the island in the Caribbean Grenadines where he lives. But it’s confusing because from its pitch and cadence you expect the descendant of a slave and yet King – an islander through and through – hails from the English and Scots who became famous fishermen and mariners here.
Brother King, as he likes to be called, is a turtle rescuer.
He cares passionately for the great Hawksbill, Green and Loggerhead sea turtles putting his personal fortune and reputation on the line to defend and help them by creating The Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary is a rescue centre on Bequia where King brings injured turtles to recover from wounds caused by sharks and fishermen. But what concerns him most is the survival of hatchling turtles.
Many of his nights during the laying season are spent standing guard over nests of eggs that turtles deposit in the warm beach sand above the high tide mark. When they hatch, he brings the nascent critters home to the Turtle Sanctuary where he rears them in special sea water tanks until they are old enough to stand a fighting chance of survival before they’re returned to the sea.
“In the wild,” he recites for what seems like the thousandth time “one in three thousand survives. There are all kinds of predators out there. But here we see 25 out of 100 surviving.”
There’s weariness in his voice as he repeats this litany. He’s been swimming upstream for nearly two decades now, and he’s sometimes regarded as a bit of a crank by locals who still see endangered sea turtles as a viable source of food and governments that pay minimum lip service to environmental treaties and agreements.
Brother Hegg is somewhere in his 70s and could even have slipped over the edge of 80. It’s hard to tell because he’s in great shape. Not the shape that comes with gym membership either.
Generations of his family spent their lives at sea. His dad was a whaler in one of the world’s last small-boat whale fisheries, but the younger King understood the great Leviathans were disappearing and couldn’t reconcile continuing their pursuit with his own need for employment.
Much of his life was spent as a fisherman, gathering conch and lobster from the bays and reefs around the island then conducting dive tours. Through these pursuits he developed a familiarity and passion for the Hawksbill turtle.
Not the biggest of the sea turtles, the Hawksbill is one of the most alluring from an economic point of view. Its brilliantly patterned, amber-coloured shell can be dried hard enough to make hundreds of different products.
“Before you had plastic, you had turtle shell. They made everything from women’s hair combs to eyeglass frames” Ergo the term tortoise shell.
The island governments of the Caribbean got together to declare sea turtles endangered in the 1970s, but little more was done to protect them or improve their chances of survival. Turtle meat and eggs were, and still are, considered a delicacy.
By 1995 Brother King had enough. As a fisherman, daily life was ruled by the expedients of the sea which dictates that if something needs to be done, you go ahead and do it while you still can. He began building the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary.
Erected on Park Beach overlooking the Atlantic side of Bequia, the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary is like its creator – unassuming.
Physically, it consists of a shed about 50 metres long and largely open to the air. Contained within are two large pools where adult turtles are kept until release, plus a third big tank for juveniles and four smaller round pools about four metres in diameter and used for injured adults and hatchlings.
Great care is taken with the turtles. King and a friend who acts as a helper change the water in each of the tanks on a weekly basis to ensure a healthy environment.
They also feed the turtles a variety of diets. Hatchlings get canned tuna and the juveniles are fed sardines. Normally they would eat jellyfish, but catching these in sufficiently large numbers is difficult and time consuming.
As King continues to deliver the lecture he has given so many times, the weariness leaves his voice when he begins to play with the turtles in the tank. His voice brightens and the turtles let him hoist them by their flippers and roll around like a Labrador retriever when he scratches their shells.
This is a hands-on place, where not only can King make friends with the turtles, but kids from around the islands come to touch and learn.
One point comes out that places him beyond the realm of a normal person – he pays for all of this himself. He is not a government or agency employee. The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines does not subsidize the sanctuary nor does the Caribbean Tourism Organization although both have a vested interest in seeing the natural side of the islands preserved.
Funding comes from King’s pocket, the small admission fee he charges to visit the turtles and the sale of souvenir T-shirts and hats.
Brother King is one of those people you run into who makes travelling worthwhile and proves that one individual can and does make a difference when governments and big organizations can’t.
For more information on the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, go to www.turtles.bequia.net or email Brother King directly at email@example.com.
“Brother King and Friend” © Bruce Kemp
2″Juvenile Hawksbill sea turtle” © Bruce Kemp
“Petting turtles at The Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary” © Bruce Kemp