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Shell Out for Samoa’s Turtle Island

September 11, 2013

The Samoan isle of Savai’i is just the spot to swim with sea turtles, climb craters and ponder Polynesian mysteries. Story and photos by Ian Lloyd Neubauer

Published on Sep 11, 2013

Take a deep breath. If you can read this with your eyes shut, try doing so now. It’s dusk. You are sitting on a kayak in a tropical lagoon looking towards a small village on the coast. The only structure of note is a whitewashed Victorian church that towers over palm-thatch huts and bungalows like an angel. Coconut trees lean over a sugar-white beach where baby waves break in perfect undulating rhythm. Larger waves smash loudly over a fringing reef as stars come to life in the purple and pink sky. Suddenly you hear a splash and you turn your head expecting to see fish but are thrilled to witness a turtle surfacing for air.

You’re neither on an atoll at the ends of the earth nor in a colonial backwater during the age of discovery. You are in Savai’i (Big Land), the largest Polynesian island outside New Zealand and Hawaii, one of 10 specks of land that make up the South Pacific nation of Samoa. And it attracts only a fraction of the 70,000 tourists visiting Samoa every year, meaning you really can have a beach or lagoon all to yourself. “Tourism is still in its infancy here,” says Warren Jopling, an Australian geologist-cum-tour guide living in Savai’i since the 1980’s. “But there’s enormous potential.”

If that’s true, it’s bittersweet news for Saliemoa Va’ai, owner of Va-i-Moana Seaside Lodge at Asua Bay in Savai’i’s northwest. “Life in Savai’i is still deeply rooted in family and culture,” says this Australian-educated son of a timber baron. “We have not been commercialized; we don’t have any five-star resorts. In one way it’s a hindrance to tourism, but at the same time that’s an attraction because it still feels genuine.” His property features a dozen overwater and beachfront bungalows without air-conditioning, Internet service or television (although it also offers a few pricier ones with all the modern amenities).

“Visitor numbers are increasing in Samoa but not too much,” Va’ai says, gazing at the empty lounge chairs on his private little stretch of beach. “The challenge is to find the right mix of development and conservation so we don’t become another Fiji.”

If there is a place in Savai’i that has been affected by tourism it’s at Saleaula, 90-minute’s drive east of Asua Bay. The village houses a row of budget properties where guests sleep in openair fale (the local version of beachfront bungalows) and dine communally. It is also home to the Satoalepai Turtle Reserve, one of the few places in the world where you can feed and even swim with endangered green sea turtles. “Twenty years ago my mother-in-law went to Brisbane to visit a friend who had a big turtle in her pool, and every day many people came to see it,” says the reserve’s manager, Papalii Faafetai. “So she decided to make a place where people can enjoy turtles in Savai’i.” The resulting sanctuary is a holding pond on the edge of a saltwater lagoon.

Swimming with turtles is a surreal experience, like visiting a zero-gravity world inhabited by fluidic, amiable aliens. I jumped with a start whenever one brushed against my back, toggling between bliss and awe while hanging onto the underside of their flippers for a ride. “The photos don’t do it justice,” enthuses John Rouse, a visitor from New Zealand. “You really have to see it yourself.”

Faafetai and his family appear to genuinely care for the 20 or so green turtles that they nurture in to adulthood and (sometimes) up to 185 kilograms, and then release into the ocean. When it comes to tourism and animals, concern for latter’s welfare should give responsible travelers pause. But as Rouse’s 11-year-old son, David, suggests, it’s pretty simple to maintain peaceable human-turtle relations: “They’re quite friendly. But don’t put your hand in front of them because they think you’re giving them food and try to bite you. But even if they do, it doesn’t really hurt.”

Savai’i has a stellar list of natural attractions that rolls on and on. In the far western peninsula, a 40-meter-high canopy walkway gives visitors a chance to see flying foxes, rare Pacific doves, skinks and gecko lizards at the Falealupo Rainforest Preserve. Villagers will take you through series of lava cylinders where they seek shelter during severe storms; and to Moso’s Footprint, an unusually shaped lava crack said to be the mark of an ancient giant. More legends abound at Cape Mulinu’u, Savai’i’s most westerly point, where the souls of the dead are said to pass into the underworld. A surf camp has popped up on the sparsely populated south coast, where curved mirrors of water break on long, empty beaches all year. And on the cliff tops of the southernmost point, you’ll find the Alofaaga (or Taga—things in Savai’i tend to have multiple monikers) Blow Holes. Formed by lava that hardened into tubes when it cooled against seawater 5,000 years ago, they squeeze waves into fountains of water 60 meters high. Try dropping a coconut into one and watch it shoot over the tops of palm trees. But time it well lest you take a drupe to
the skull.

A bit to the east, not far from Afu Aau Falls, is the Pulemelei Mound (or Tia Seu Ancient Mound). The largest archaeological site in Polynesia, this step pyramid probably was built between 1200 and 1400 A.D. during the Tongan occupation of Savai’i. Be warned: it’s a challenging hour-long slog through thick, steamy jungle to reach the mound, and when you get there you may ask what all the bother is about. Covered in vines and looking more like a hill, it’s a far cry from the great pyramids of Egypt. What makes Pulemelei special is the mystery behind it.

The facts? Ancient conch shells that Samoans still use today to announce meetings have been found here, and the site has 3,000 platforms where people appear to have lived. According to tour guide Jopling, who’s hosted numerous archeologists over the years, ideas on Pulemelei’s original purpose abound. It could have been a socio-administrative building, a temple to the war gods, or a watchtower that allowed its builders to spot approaching enemy canoes. Legendary Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, whose 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition sailed the Pacific in a balsa-wood raft, visited a few months before his death in 2002 and posited it was built by a white-skinned race who sailed from South America. “But nothing has come down in the Samoans’ oral history,” Jopling says. “So we really have no idea who built it, or for what purpose.”

Another location that calls meaning into question: the Saleaula Lava Fields, born out of destruction between 1905 and 1911, when rolling lava flattened every building in a neighboring village, leaving only three open-to-interpretation exceptions—two churches and the grave of a revered nun. Today, these are holy sites amid an eerie, black 50-square-kilometer moonscape, whose on-going existence stands as a stark reminder of the unstoppable force of the 450-odd supposedly extinct volcanoes in the 1,858-meter-high range at the center of Savai’i.

To see where the lava came from, take the 10-kilometer drive up to the Mount Matavanu Crater. The road is four-wheel-drive only and maintained by an erudite hermit known as Craterman, who collects a 20 Tala entry fee—a right afforded to all traditional landowners of Samoan sites. For an additional 50 Tala, Craterman will engrave your name, the date of your visit and a message on one of the wooden signposts marking the walking track around the rim of the crater. LIFE IS SHORT, reads one commissioned by a 2002 visitor from Germany. TRAVEL IT WELL.

Carpeted with tree ferns and 30-meter-high hardwood giants dwarfed within gargantuan vine-covered black walls, the inside of the crater is awesome to behold. And the surrounds of Mount Matavanu are equally grand. A trip to the top is capped with outrageous views of Savai’i’s northern lagoons where an estimated 200 kinds of coral and 900 species of fish live. “These waters are untouched, so no one really knows too much about what’s down there,” says Pele Emelio, a marine biologist who leads big-game fishing charters on a 13-meter Cabo fishing boat moored at Asua Bay. Although one thing he does know is that they can produce great sport fish: sailfish, barracuda and yellow-fin tuna, as well as ‘Granders’— marlin that weigh more than 450 kilograms. “Nine are caught in the world each year,” says Emelio. “We’ve only ever caught one but, then again, we’re the only ones out there.”

T+L Guide

Getting There
Air New Zealand ( flies from Sydney and Auckland to Fagali’i Airport, Apia. There, connect to Samoa air ( to fly to Maota Airport in Savai’i.

Va-i-Moana Seaside Lodge Main Rd., Asua Bay; +685 58 140;; with tropical breakfast and seafood barbecue dinner. Beachfront Fales there are dozens of these in Savai’i and they open and close with the frequency of rainstorms. for this reason, contact the samoa tourism authority for current, recommended listings.;


Warren Jopling’s Safua Tours offers informative trips to the Pulemelei Mound, Saleaula Lava Fields and other attractions. +685 750 6448.
Oceanic Sport Fishing Adventures
+685 775 9606;; game-fishing charter boats.
Savai’i Surfaris
Aganoa Beach Fale; Satoalepai Turtle Reserve Saleaula Village; +685 845 3408.


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