Throughout the summer, long after the sun sets on Florida beaches, a ritual is played out in the shadows of the towering condos that has gone on for millions and millions of years.
The sea turtles have returned to nest, to the same area—perhaps the very same beach––
where they themselves hatched and clawed their way out of a sandy pit to make a mad scramble toward the light…to the sea.
One summer evening I waited at a Juno Beach hangout—the aptly named “Thirsty Turtle”—for a call from the beach patrol. It was after midnight, drizzling, when the radio call came—
a leatherback was dropping eggs.
My fellow turtle watchers and I dashed along the shoreline to join a group of researchers
who were preparing to attach a satellite transmitter to the world’s largest sea turtle.
Easily a thousand pounds, six feet long, head the size of a soccerball.
I crawled up the dune behind the turtle to watch the slimy golf-ball sized eggs drop
into the deep hole she had dug with her back flippers.
She was oblivious to us—once turtles start laying eggs, they go into a sort of trance and ignore the activity around them.
The research team, with the precision of a surgical unit, moves in quickly to strap a small box on top of her shell. If the hatchlings make it to the sea, they swim thousands of miles to feeding areas halfway around the world, returning 30, 40 years later to nest. We don’t know where they go in between, hence the transmitter.
My back is pelted by flipperfuls of sand. I glance over my shoulder to see a loggerhead heaving herself across the sand to set up shop about 20 feet away.
I look back to the waterline where another loggerhead has suddenly materialized in the mist.
She has popped up behind an unsuspecting young couple out for a romantic stroll.
I fight the urge to yell, “Watch out for the turtle!!”
How many times are you able to say that?
I turn back to the leatherback who sighs heavily as watery excretions flow from her eyes—it’s hard not to think that she is crying.
She fills the cavity with sand and begins to rock back and forth, rotating her massive body,
around, around and around, flinging sand in all directions to mask the nest from predators.
She stops abruptly and lifts her head, as if she has heard something.
Shuffling herself around to face the sea, she pauses, then flings herself forward and down the dune onto the packed sand.
Her speed is astonishing.
It is difficult to let her go off alone. . . I want to go with her. I wade into the surf, and walk alongside and behind her, stroking her rubbery shell, her flippers soft as a baby’s skin.
She shoves away from shore, and under a wave. I strain for one last glimpse….and there it is!
Her head emerges and she flings it back to take a deep gulp of air that will enable her to dive deep into the sea, where we cannot follow.
I believe in the power of this ritual that has gone on for millions of years, long before we cast shadows on these sands.
I believe in turtles, in their courage, their life force that will not be deterred, and…yes, in their grace.
A few weeks ago a leatherback nest was identified on a seashore near Corpus Christi.
Leatherbacks had not been seen on that beach for more than 70 years.
I wasn’t surprised. After all, turtles take the long view.
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