A Special Moment in Time with the World’s Rarest Turtle

By Clinton Doak

When asked, many people will tell you that the happiest day of their lives is either their wedding day or the day their children were born. Truly momentous events in our life are few and far between, and, for some of us, a unique wildlife encounter can certainly rank as equally life-changing. Such was the case for six colleagues and I who were left standing on the verge of tears on a diminutive island beach in Dong Mo Lake, just outside of Hanoi, Vietnam.

The TSA / ATP team pays close attention for signs of the legendary Dong Mo turtle.

On an overcast day in early February, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) Chief Operating Officer Andrew Walde, San Diego Zoo Global’s Brett Baldwin, four Asian Turtle Program (ATP) staff, and I, slowly motored out to a small horseshoe shaped island in Dong Mo to chance our luck at seeing the rarest turtle and one of the planet’s rarest animals, the Yangtze Giant Softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Outfitted with binoculars and bodies pumping with the adrenaline of anticipation we scanned the surface of the massive lake for a sighting as rare as the turtle itself. Aided by some of the best Rafetus field technicians in Vietnam and a large dose of luck, the day would prove to be one we will never forget.

After an hour of scanning the murky waters of Dong Mo with no signs of turtle activity, a large splash erupted from the water’s surface about 20 meters from where we stood on shore. One of the ATP staff had been looking that way and said it was the turtle! Some rubbing transpired about not being able to tell a fish from a turtle, but this particular ATP staff has probably seen Rafetus more times than anyone on earth, so we deferred to their knowledge. Despite the teasing, a quiet fell over the group, and everyone went on high-alert, not deviating their eyes from the lake’s surface. Shortly thereafter, the sun broke through the clouds and an almost mythical animal slowly raised its head from the murky waters, seemingly to catch a glimpse of us. Everyone had excellent views of this magnificent creature with its dappled head patterns glistening in the sun. In a matter of seconds from the time it surfaced, the animal disappeared once more below the water’s surface. Seven grown men were left hollering, cheering, and hugging from this short glimpse of a specimen who represents one quarter of the species’ known population. We had just seen the legendary Rafetus swinhoei in its natural habitat—an animal defiant to the death knell of extinction.

Over the course of a half-hour the Dong Mo Rafetus swinhoei was sighted five times.

With the sun continuing to illuminate the water’s surface, the turtle graced us with its presence four more times that day. Reveling in the experience, the good fortune was universally felt by the entire team. As the day on the lake drew to a close, we clamored back into the small boat. Emotions ran high and the jubilant hollering of hours before had drawn to a quite chatter as we slowly made our way back to the shore where our taxi awaited us. Noticing that Andrew grown a bit quieter than most, I asked what was up, and he replied, “My emotions are swirling. I’ve been somewhat involved with Rafetus for over 10 years; I’ve never seen one. I’m scared to talk as I might start crying. It’s beautiful. I can’t believe we are so close to losing them.”

On the ride back to our quarters, a peaceful quite fell over us as our emotions continued to swirl, all of us in silent contemplation of the moment we had shared. Brett slowly started to speak, breaking the silence as he verbally processed what had just occurred. “We sat on the shore for an hour with binoculars, when Rafetus splashed up right in front of us. I never expected to see him. He popped up several times. It was pretty intense—we hugged and high-fived each other with tears in our eyes. It was definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments I will never forget."

Jack Carney, Clint Doak, Andrew Walde, Brett Baldwin, and Nguyen Tai Thang enjoy an unforgettable day in Vietnam.

This experience, and feelings shared by our team will forever connect the seven of us. We can’t thank ATP enough for facilitating our visit, the great conversations, and helping to fulfill a fantasy. For turtle conservationists, the Yangtze Giant Softshell is the holy grail of turtles. This is a species that we have spent years, some of us over a decade, trying to save from extinction’s eternal grasp. Seeing this turtle where it rightly belongs, in the wild, is honestly a feeling that can’t be put into words. These fleeting moments are what we work for as conservationists. The five interactions with the Dong Mo turtle, totaling maybe one full minute of actually viewing the animal, make every drop of blood, sweat, and tears we put into chelonian conservation worth it. Although the main purpose of our visit to Vietnam was to discuss upcoming conservation efforts for this species in the country, the moment in time we experienced with the legendary turtle of Dong Mo Lake will continue to fuel our internal fires for its species’ preservation.

With a full-scale, multi-organizational effort underway to find more specimens, please continue to pay attention to the TSA newsletter and Social Media as more updates become available in the coming months.