Local sea turtle advocate and his unique pets are regulars at Fisherman’s Cove
By Rita Robinson, Special to the Independent
No, it wasn’t a release from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
Laguna resident John Gilmour walks down to the water at Fisherman’s Cove and tosses two Honduras Wood turtles—fresh-water turtles, not much larger than your hand—out to sea.
They don’t scurry off to parts unknown in the big blue.
Instead, they stick their noses high above water, watch Gilmour and follow him, attentively waiting for his signal. He claps his hands and they make a beeline back to him, gliding in on their bellies like thatched-roof tiki boats with oars straight out, making a smooth landing onto his palms.
“Good boy, good boy,” Gilmour praises his pride, Little John and Emmett, with paternal enthusiasm. Gilmour sticks out his nose and they each give him what he calls a nose kiss. “That’s all they want.”
That, and a rub on the top of their up-stretched heads, a handshake each and another nose kiss. Responding to the hand clap is the least of their skills. On his signal, the turtles know when to drop their shoulders and dunk under a wave, “just like a surfer,” Gilmour said.
They don’t get a sardine for their talent; they get hand-rolled sushi at a local restaurant later. If they don’t get hand-carried to the restaurant by Gilmour, they ride first-class, temperature set just right, in his Tesla.
The trick is in the training to get fresh-water turtles not to drink sea water. “If they do, they could die,” Gilmour said, warning others not to try this with their fresh-water reptiles. “It takes professional training.”
Gilmour, a designer for a custom snowboard and skateboard company and expert in optimizing high-end audiophile systems, has lived with Little John and Emmett for 14 years. They came as mail-order pets, the size of quarters.
Growing up with Gilmour, the turtles are naturally fond of people and trust them. “They’ve never bitten or scratched anyone, they’re very gentle,” he said. “They’re out of their shells all the time.”
Over the years, 40,000 children have played with the turtles, he said. “Because of that, they don’t have any fear of humans of any kind.” And they’re housebroken, trained much like you train a dog.
“Turtles are smart and one of the oldest species of animals,” Gilmour said. “They’re perfectly evolved from prehistoric times. They can learn all these complex behaviors with a brain the size of a pea and still be kind. My turtles are really kind. If something with a brain that size can be kind, that gives hope to humankind.”
Gilmour became a turtle activist on a trip to Florida, where he scooped up green sea turtles coming out of the Atlantic to nest. The turtles would follow the glow from nearby houselights and streetlights, assuming it was the moon, right onto the asphalt and into traffic, ending their lives as road kill.
“We lost thousands of these turtles,” he said, “thousands of flattened turtle shells pancaked by cars.”
Gilmour tried to get people to turn off their outside and poolside lights. “They were mostly short-term rentals, so we didn’t have enough time to educate people properly,” he said. The only thing that got their attention was when the children from the neighborhood got involved.
“The children would come around and ask everyone, ‘Did the turtles comes, did the turtles come?’ Then they’d talk about the turtles. The children taught the adults.”
Gilmour instantly became a champion of sea turtles and started campaigning for their safety and preservation as a volunteer for Turtle Time, Inc. “We would walk the beach from Naples to Fort Myers and beyond during nesting time from summer to fall to ensure that nests were safe.”
The Honduras Wood turtle takes second-chair in the smart department only to the North American Wood turtle, said Gilmour.That turtle is listed as an endangered species and the other wood turtles are under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service due to human interference by habitat destruction via development, degraded waterways from urban and agricultural encroachment, the use of pesticides, hunting and poaching.
Even though Little John and Emmett won the lottery when they landed in Gilmour’s hands, they sometimes get depressed.
“They sulk in a corner when they don’t go to the beach. They like meeting people,” said Gilmour, who also takes them to swim at Pirate’s Cove at the south end of the harbor in Newport Beach. But when Gilmour amps up the speakers at home, especially if it’s a woman singing opera, Little John races to the middle of the room for a surround-sound experience.
Little John and Emmett have traveled extensively with Gilmour. The only hassle, said Gilmour, is when he takes them to Hawaii. “I can’t take them on the plane like I used to. Ever since 9-11, I have to mail them next-day air and technically import them just to take them on vacation.”