Memories of Alan
Text below shared by RPCV Jim Gregory, Western Samoa 70-72
Alan Banner came to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Division of Fisheries after I started working in Fisheries in 1971. We both worked under Bill Travis, the Fisheries Officer for the Government of Western Samoa. Bill was a British expatriate. Alan was assigned to the fledgling turtle hatchery at Alepata, on the eastern tip of Upolu. The job seemed a natural, since Alan’s father was a marine biologist in Hawaii.
Certain beaches in Upolu were attractive for hawks bill turtles to come out of the sea and lay their eggs in the sandy beaches. Apparently, the only time the females would come to shore is once every two years, to lay their eggs. After approximately a sixty day gestation period, the eggs, which remind me of soft ping pong balls, would hatch and the new born sea turtles would instinctively start crawling for the open sea. Their survival rate was very low. Samoans consider the turtle eggs a delicacy. The villagers would come to the beaches to collect the eggs, where it would be easy to identify where the female adults had crawled up on the beach during the night to lay her eggs. If the eggs survived to hatch, the young turtles faced the problem of birds, crabs, dogs, and other predators picking them off as they crawled down to the water’s edge. The survival rate for the young turtles was estimated at less than five percent.
Alan’s project was to improve the survival rate and make a viable turtle hatchery. The hatchery was an enclosure, surrounded by chicken wire, on top and sides, and a concrete base. The floor was filled with sand. Early, every morning, Alan and his local assistants would search the beaches, looking for any new deposits of turtle eggs. They would dig in the sand and collect the eggs. The eggs would then be moved to the hatchery, where they would be reburied in the sand, where they were given protected from predators, and allowed to hatch undisturbed. Later, after the eggs hatched, the young turtles would be kept in a trough of sea water for several weeks. Following that period, Alan would take the young turtles out in his outboard, and release them on the outside of the reef. Their survival rate was greatly increased and estimated at over 85 percent.
I remember Alan showing me the instinctiveness of the turtle hatchlings to crawl in the direction of the water. One time we deposited several soon-to-hatch turtle eggs on the back side of sand dunes. The new hatchlings would instinctively know which direction to go to reach the ocean, even though they had to travel uphill to crest the sand dune, to get to the beach. This was done without them having ever seen the ocean.
I would typically go to Savai’i for one to two weeks at a time to work with the village fishing associations. On one occasion, I arranged with Alan for a group of volunteers, including myself, to go to Alepata to visit and make a weekend visit with him. We planned a beach barbecue and to go skin diving off the small islands offshore of Alepata, using the Fisheries Division boat. After having made the arrangements with the interested volunteers, I went to Savai’i on Monday. When I came back to Apia, the capital of Western Samoa, on Friday afternoon, my plan was to rendezvous with the other volunteers as planned and take a public bus and go to Alepata. However, when I arrived at the Fisheries Office, Bill Travis, my supervisor, told me that plans had changed. He was going to take the group of volunteers to Alepata in the Fisheries Department’s vehicle, and there was no room for me.
I believe it was late Sunday that Bill returned to Apia. The Volunteers who were on the weekend outing said Alan had been skin diving and was on the surface, when, all of a sudden, there was only a pool of blood on the surface where he had been. They had searched the area for Alan or any trace of him. Bill brought the volunteers back to Apia. He picked up our key fishermen, who were mostly Solomon Islanders, and our shark net, which I often used, and other supplies, and returned to Alepata, on the eastern tip of Upolu. I volunteered to go to help in the search, since I was an experienced swimmer and diver. Bill made the decision that he was not going to allow any PCV’s along or in the water during the search. His thoughts were of the effect it would have on the Fisheries programs if he were to loose a second Peace Corps Volunteer. The crew set out the shark net for several days, but to no avail. The stomachs were cut open of the sharks which were caught in the nets, but human remains were never found. We believed it was a tiger shark that attacked Alan. At the end of the fruitless search, Bill and the fisheries’ crew returned to Apia.
I have always had a feeling of remorse in knowing that even though I was not on that fateful weekend outing, I was the one which originally planned the weekend outing.
photo shared by Alan’s sister Kay