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Conch Pearl Hobbyist Rescues Turtles

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Rendezvous Restaurant & Winery
Rendezvous Restaurant & Winery is Ambergris Caye's latest fine dining restaurant located 4 miles north of San Pedro, Belize, specializing in authentic Thai & French Fusion Cuisine. For the discriminating traveler Rendezvous is truly a Culinary Adventure. Imagine being whisked away from your hotel dock for 10 minute boat cruise under the stars to arrive at a charming colonial style villa on the beach over looking the Caribbean sea. With only 24 seats and an open style kitchen this intimate setting is a one of a kind on Ambergris Caye.
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Conch Pearl Hobbyist Rescues Turtles
A Belizean Restauranter and Conch Pearl hobbyist Glenn Schwendinger, tells his story of how he and his wife went on a summer expedition for the elusive conch pearl to Nicaragua's Corn Island which in turn led to the most incredible encounter with the local people and over 20 turtles that eventually unfolded to the turtles rescue and return to the ocean. In addition to that, add the awareness made by Glenn to the local "turtle farmers" of the benefits of harvesting "the oceans most sought after treasure" and how it has changed a way of life for a few and brought an onslaught of "Turtle Luck" to all involved.

It was mid October and we decide to travel the Atlantic coast of Central America for the elusive Conch Pearl. Upon arriving on Corn Island we checked into our accommodations around sunset and spent the evening getting to know the staff and where we could find our elusive Conch Pearls. In the morning we took a stroll down the beach to check out the surroundings. One of, if not the first structures we come across on the beach is a make shift style stick hut with  chicken wire walls and a tin roof. Naturally we investigate because our beaches on Ambergris Caye don't  have this style of structure. I naively figured chickens. NOT !

What we saw when we looked through the chicken wire fencing that acted as a jail structure, more than walls, was horrific. The tenants of this shack couldn't move 1 inch, even if severely challenged, never mind confine them. Turtles, twenty three of them in total, weighing between 100-250lbs a piece, upside down on their backs front and feet bound together as to very effectively immobilize them. The more we watched this unearthly spectacle we noticed that were a selected few Turtles that were allowed the comfort of a log to support their weary necks,so as to prevent them to snap their necks , because he gave up ,or had no more strength left to hold up his head. As we continued our walk up the beach we could help but become emotionally overwhelmed by the magnitude of the torture that was happening, that we had just witnessed.

Some few hundred feet in our direction was a young lad by the name of Moses sitting in a rocking chair with a companion. We stopped, and I asked young Moses,  maybe 15 , what's up with the shack full of turtles. Why do they keep them like that, who owns them etc etc etc... My interrogation led to Moses knowing where the owner of the Turtles lived and her personal bio. I wanted to talk to this person but wasn't quite sure what I would say and why? We sent Moses on his bike for a buck to fetch me the owner of the establishment, which he did, eagerly awaiting a tip of some sort. It was definitely to become the adventure of his young life. Colleen and I walked back to our accommodations naturally stopping at the "Turtle Shack" as we now called it.

We stared into their prison again and watched them TRY to breath, giant heaves looking for air because their body weight was crushing them being upside down, Like a human being hung upside down suspended in the air for say? a couple of weeks?? Till their eyeballs popped out for example. Some got a short gasp, others older and heavier tried to take less breaths but strong ones. others just moaned, some tried to look at who was talking to them. It was, to me, at the time one of the most horrific of sights I had ever witnessed, and I have seen some!! Our Crusader Moses returns some 20 minutes later at full speed saying that the owner whose name we,now know is Lorena can't come this far on foot and would need a taxi. 2 bucks and a half hour later appears Miss Lorena with our speedy messenger Moses.

The time anticipating Ms Lorena's arrival and our objective became clear. We could not let these Turtles die this way. In the time we spent talking to Moses initially we discovered that was from a lot of 40 turtles caught a couple of weeks ago and there were as I said 23 left due to be slaughtered for meat, which is the custom on this little island. However they only slaughtered as per what the butchers wanted, 2-3 a week. So 23 turtles dived by 3  is 7 weeks of torture for the remaining 23. Our objective became to purchase and release all the turtles, and how much was Ms Lorena going to charge and what do they cost? etc etc..

Ms Lorena, a Creole lady in her late 40's  appears a half an hour later accompanied by the worker in his best Sunday dress. I'm going to be their turkey, that was the window dressing. Ms Lorena and her worker {the turkey hunter} and I got to know each other for a little while. Dusk was approaching and we were leaving the next day. Have to do the deal. I explained that my wife and I could not bear to watch the turtles suffer more than they were. The questions were simple and a price with her profit margin were established. Until we got to that point we tried to make her realize that catching ,selling and torturing turtles is like what Pirates did to her ancestors 200 years ago bound hand and foot in the bilges of wooden boats coming from Africa. Our tears flowed as we both realized the magnitude of the injustice to these old, old, old turtles, who were around 200 years ago!

Moses had for hours already been told that we were going to release all the turtles and to assemble a team to assist in the process. Have you ever tried to move a 250lb Turtle? A short time later we Paid Ms Lorena the equivalent of under 60 US a turtle, went to the beach ,opened the shack and with the 200 odd people that somehow heard about the goings on,  released all but 3 of the turtles that were destined for morning market. The release of the turtles was a joyous spiritual event. Old people chanting "For Nicaragua!" boys untwining the turtles hands and feet hauling them out to a team on the beach that would heave to ,on a count to turn the animal over. Others helped to revive the turtles and give water and get them to move closer to the sea to escape. one by one we dragged them out turned them over and set them free.

They looked at us, the humans doing what we were doing and there was a sense of knowing, as abstract as some may find, they knew what was happening!  They waved their flipper when they were finally floating as if "thanks we'll see you later", they shook their heads and looked up to see who were these strange benefactors removing them from their HELL where they were. There was a sense! It turned out to be what we now endearingly call "turtle luck"!!  Time and time again during the continuing voyage :things, people,places ,opportunities just appeared like magic from the depths of our minds . What we needed happened. It was quite eerie at the time ,but we have since gotten over our good fortune. In the negotiations for the price of the release with Ms. Lorena I knew there was almost no way that she wouldn't supply the market with Turtle meat again, so I had to give her an alternative!


Since Colleen and I were there looking for Conch pearls I suggested to her that if she tried to work with Conch fisherman to obtain the elusive pearl I would buy them from her. I taught her what they looked like and as many details I could feed an uninitiated 5 months later Ms. Lorena calls to say that she has bought me 3 conch pearls and wanted my opinion on the price of another. She then recounted how moving the turtle release was for and has never bought a turtle since and tells others to do the same!!!! ONE!  can make a difference !

Photographs and text by Glenn Schwendinger of Rendezvous Restaurant              
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