Saturday, December 24, 2011

Launching baby turtles

Kathia, the owner's wife at Lookout Lodge, participates in a local turtle conservation project. Guests who choose to rise at 5:30 am may accompany her in checking on the nests of the olive Ridley turtles that nest along the high water mark. In November and early December, she notes where turtles have come up the beach during the night to lay eggs. The mother turtles two distinctive parallel tracks up the beach, and the sand is slightly disturbed where they have dug. Kathia places an iron grill over the spot to protect it from marauding dogs or coatis.

Each nest contains about a hundred round, leathery eggs that are about 3 cm in diameter. Some weeks later, the eggs hatch. First the sand settles a little as the eggs crack open, and then during the night the baby turtles work their way out of the nest and struggle down to the water's edge. Some never hatch, and others get snapped up by hawks on the way to the water; others drown in the surf.

The last two mornings, I went with Kathia. She digs up nests where the eggs have successfully hatched during the night so she can take a census. In the first one we dug up, we found 97 empty egg shells and three that never hatched. Other times the whole nest is ruined. This morning David and Damian came along, and they found one nest where the strongest turtles had almost reached the air. We dug out 120 babies and carried them home along the beach in a hat and Kathia's purse. We kept them in a bucket during breakfast, letting them gain strength. Then the whole lodge traipsed down to the beach to see them off.

We upended the buckets and let the babies begin their long trek. One hundred twenty baby turtles, all the color of the dark volcanic sand, all the same size, managed to orient themselves toward the sea and paddle laboriously across the sand. At first, they paused to rest every three or four steps. Later, they walked longer. The little kids selected favorites and cheered them on. The babies passed the smooth sand and reached pebbles as big as they were. Tottering, sometimes falling upside down, they waved their flippers and struggled on.

Then, just when it seemed as if their journey was done, waves caught them and threw them tumbling back up the beach. Again and again they almost reached their goal only to be slapped back. Exhausted, they righted themselves and tried again.

By the time we left Lookout Inn, most of the turtles had somehow made it and disappeared into the waves. Only about twenty were still plowing onward, trying again, not giving up. What a metaphor for every kind of earthly endeavor!

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