One minute she wasn’t there and the next she was immediately below us, her patchy bronze shell scarred and her flippers flashing pale yellow as she paddled, head cocked to the left, watching us stare down through our masks. In the clear turquoise water above the reef that surrounds the island of Gili Meno in Indonesia, an ancient, endangered hawksbill turtle materialized out of the blue gloom beneath my six-year-old son, Darragh, and I as we snorkelled, holding hands and drifting in a cool current.
We followed her for the next 20 minutes or so, turning our heads the smallest bit so we could look at each other in amazement as the turtle – nearly the length of my son – lollygagged and doubled back on herself for a tempting bit of sea grass, apparently perfectly content to have us intrude in her world. I could hear Darragh’s thrilled giggles, muffled through his snorkel.
Gili Meno is the middle of the three gilis (it means “small islands” in Sasak, the local language) scattered between tourist-choked Bali and more mysterious Lombok. Gili Meno is the smallest, quietest island – and one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. It has the slightly secret air of a place that’s way off the path to anywhere, and a seductive culture that’s a hybrid of aboriginal, Islam and beach hippy. It’s lush and lovely in every direction, and time here is as transportive as it is restorative.
The resident population is 400 people and the island is car-free (you can find a couple of lackadaisical horses hitched to a cart if you really need to move something). Some of the coast is dotted with tiny hotels and thatched cabins; in the centre is the village where the islanders live, and a handful of larger houses for rent. It takes 90 minutes to make your way around the whole thing – or the entire day if you stop every time you are overcome by the desire to loll in the sand, sit on a lounger and order a fresh pineapple shake.
The currents off Gili Meno are a preferred feeding ground for sea turtles – loggerheads, greens and the hawksbill who dawdled with us. They were easy to find. We went out the gate of our rental house, walked 150 metres to the beach straight into the water, and 20 metres out came upon all three at once. Even my three-year-old Lizalou “swam” with them by floating above while wearing a life jacket.
The reefs have been damaged by fishing nets and climate change, but they still teem with tropical fish flitting through bright-coloured coral. Islanders know the turtles are key to the future of Gili tourism, so they are working to protect the marine environment. At a tiny “turtle sanctuary” on Gili Meno, one committed islander raises babies in tanks: He gathers the eggs after they’re laid, hatches them, and hand feeds the babies in small pools until they are about eight months old and have a better chance of surviving the appetites of big fish and birds. Each August, he lets them go in a ceremony rich with Sasak tradition; visitors are welcome to help carry the slippery, flippery turtle teenagers down to the surf and release them.
The Gilis are also great for diving, and a couple of exceedingly laid-back dive shops can provide gear. One morning we left the kids happily making crafts with our hosts, and went out with Blue Marlin. They puttered us about 15 minutes off shore in a wooden dive boat, and then took us down 18 metres to a reef with pinnacles and canyons where we saw octopi, manta rays, cuttlefish and still more turtles – one of them snuggled up sound asleep in a giant barrel sponge, a bit like a cat on a hearthside pillow.