Turtle Island

When people ask me on my return from traveling “What did you bring home with you? How has that experience affected you?” I begin to sort through the memories, stories, held in photographs, tickets and bills.

I am still unpacking the answer to my recent trip, but the last important experience was on a beach in Trinidad. We stayed at Mont Plaisir, a rustic inn right on a lovely beach. My daughter and I went there to see the leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. I couldn’t quite see how it would play out because the beach was public and well-used – families swimming and running, calling to each other and busily enjoying the day at the beach…….until the rain came – which it did at least once a day.  When it rained, I sat entranced, relishing the sound and feel of the rain with all my drought-stricken Californian heart; the drops were enormous and cool. (As I write this I am listening to a recording of tropical rain-fall.)

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The rain ended as suddenly as it started, leaving the beach to be repopulated with humans.

We signed up for one of the tours, and were told to be on the beach late in the evening. I impatiently watched the sun disappear into the clear green Caribbean waters, and finally night arrived. Then the night-time beach became private, with the only light from the richly star-studded skies. All the buildings adjoining the beach closed their shutters to stop the leaking out of electric light. This was essential we were told, as light would distract not only the laying mothers but also draw the hatchlings from the previous laying who were just beginning to emerge from the sand. We found some who had headed to the lights earlier instead of the ocean and were struggling against walls in the opposite direction from the sea.

After dinner we assembled on the beach watching the luminous waters and waited for a signal from the guides. In groups of 10 or so, we carefully followed the guides carrying infra-red lanterns down onto the beach. Out of the phosphorescent sea, huge dark shapes trundled laboriously up the beach each to find their laying spot. The mama turtles, each as big as coffee tables had arrived!

The guides explained that they would not take notice of us because they were so focused and we were to gather at a respectful distance to watch. It was a compelling sight and our group drew to within a few feet of one turtle to see her spurt eggs into the sand. Every few minutes she moved in rotation, digging up sand with her huge strong flippers as she moved, then she paused to lay more eggs around the circumference of her circle. The turtles were mesmerized, it seemed, by the task of birthing the eggs and covering them rhythmically. As their flippers moved the sand, to our dismay, shells and eggs from earlier layings flew out of the sand.

Each turtle moved in her own slow primeval dance. My breath seemed to attune itself to the rhythm and I too became mesmerized by the primal event. After an hour or two the turtles paused, laying ended, and they lumbered back to the ocean, leaving deep tracks like those made by tractors.

We heard that at dawn tomorrow all kinds of predators would assemble to feast both on the eggs and the poor unfortunate babies who had yet to run the gauntlet to the ocean. We were invited to come to the rescue of as many as we could.

We learned that for every 100 turtle babies who made it to the ocean only one would survive to return to the beach to carry on the species. My daughter arose before dawn ready to foil the attempts of hungry birds who dug the babies out of their sandy nests and pecked at the vulnerable heads and flippers protruding from the shells.                                Although we were about forty people up and down the beach rescuing the babies, the birds outnumbered us and the sand was a horrible scene of carnage.

Chasing the persistent predators away, I picked up as many babies as I could to escort them to the edge of the water. Although they were no bigger than the palm of my hand, the drive I felt in the small creatures’ bodies amazed me.

Their flippers pushed powerfully as with their whole being each responded to the internal directive to go home to the ocean. With each one – even the injured ones – I sent wishes for survival against the terrible odds they will face so they would live to return. Thinking of the enormous odds they faced, I was reminded of a video of marine biologists who swim with the turtles and pull the sheets of plastic and bags they inadvertently swallow out of them.

This experience transformed me! I became one of the dotty old ladies one sees wandering the streets picking up debris. Every day, as I walk the dog or go about my daily rounds, in the name of the turtles, I pick up plastic bags to properly dispose of them.

IMG_4526Today’s haul

In the name of the turtles! Those mysterious beings who must overcome so much to live to be adults. I don’t think I will ever stop.



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