Thursday, June 9, 2011

Living on Turtle Time

It's sort of like one of those sad, sad stories that you'd hear in a country song.
Because every morning when I wake up, she's long gone from our bed and our house, leaving me to wonder just where I went wrong.
I'd like to write that song someday. But the problem is, there aren't a whole lot of words that rhyme with 'turtle.'
That's right.
She's left me for a turtle. A bunch of them in fact.
Now, I've always kinda liked turtles myself, starting back when my mother used to have to conduct a veritable head-to-toe body search anytime we'd visit the old Kresge store in Kewanee, where the overflowing bowl of tiny terrapins on sale begged to be kidnapped (turtlenapped?) and taken home to live a life of ease in my underwear drawer. The ban on the tiny critters due to the danger of salmonella poisoning saved me from a life of crime, and small shelled reptiles were pretty much off my radar until my sons discovered Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and the rest of the Teenage Mutant Ninjas.
But these Carolina turtles are something altogether different.
The sea turtles that inhabit the waters near here are magnificent, graceful creatures that spend virtually all of their time in the water. The exception is nesting instinct-driven process that returns them to the beaches where they were born for a cumbersome nighttime crawl from the water and onto the beach by the flippered mama, who digs a hole, deposits often over 100 ping pong ball-shaped eggs, then covers them before beginning the arduous trip back to the sea.
We had heard all about the turtles found around Topsail on previous trips to the island, but were looking forward to seeing them and their nests for ourselves. Last year, we even visited the renowned Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, where we saw the great work the hospital's staff and volunteers do to help the ones who are sick or injured.
We got mixed messages on the chances that we'd actually see a nest, with some folks stating that they rarely occurred on our end of the island, while others claimed that our nearby beaches could be as crowded with egg-laying she-turtles as a pork chop line on the first morning of Hog Days. It was not until later that we came to understand that the trained and dedicated turtle watchers who have the task of finding and protecting nests that sometime number over 100 would just as soon crowds wouldn't gather, especially until they've been officially marked and protected from curious tourists and egg-eating predators with stakes, tape and wire mesh.
Things really got rolling one morning when Megan headed out for an early morning walk and returned with exciting news. A large loggerhead turtle had made her way through the sand, leaving a wide u-shaped trail that showed where she had crawled up to a nesting spot, then back to the water. Unfortunately, it was what is called a 'false crawl,' not unlike false labor, and no eggs were to be found. It was our first connection with the "real" turtle watchers that work the beach, and we exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. A good thing, too, because the next morning, Megan found another turtle trail that led to an actual egg-filled nest--the first one discovered on the island this season.
The resulting turtle tizzy earned Megan a brevet promotion to the Topsail Island Sea Turtle Patrol, a well-deserved honor that included the official T-shirt and a quick series of substitute beach walking assignments. They gave me a shirt, too, despite a still-hinky knee that keeps me from the kind of long-distance hikes the patrol requires. I do, however, hope to act as a nest watcher in a couple of months, a less taxing task that requires my kind of equipment and activity level: a beach chair, a flashlight and a willingness to sit around and wait for something to happen as the nests come alive and the hatchlings make their way to the sea that will be their home for the rest of their lives.
With both of us "on the team," so to speak, we were invited to attend and assist with a big event--the annual turtle release, where the hospital returns rehabbed patients to the wide open ocean.
The notification email we received regarding the big day asked that we "not tell everyone we know," as the organizers indicated that they wanted to avoid over-large crowds. We were, therefore, a bit surprised to see the streets leading to the release site jammed with cars, school busses and traffic cops.
Me: I think word got out.
She: Is this going to make us late?
Me: Don't worry, they're turtles. They've gotta be slow.
We walked the last couple of blocks to the wide area of beach designated for the release of 25 loggerheads, greens and kemp ridleys, where we were assigned crowd and vehicle control duties in keeping with our fancy T-shirts. Soon, the guests of honor made their appearance. Each was carried to the water by groups of hospital volunteers, while school children from classrooms that had adopted some of them led the way with signs telling each turtle's name and species.
"I know a class from Irving School that adopted a turtle from this hospital," said Megan. "I wish they could see this."
"Turtles, turtles, turtles, turtles," chanted the huge crowd of kids and adults that lined the pathway they'd take to the sea.
It was at that point that something that had at first seemed just kind of nice turned into something kind of beautiful for me. Because as each animal was carried towards the ocean, a downright beatific look came over their faces. Their necks stretched towards the waiting sea, and slowly and gracefully, their long flippers began to move as if they were swimming free already.
"They smell it," said an onlooker right next to me. "They know they're going home."
One of the volunteers in a truck behind me turned to a friend.
"After all the bad stuff people do to them, I'm glad we got to do something good," she said.
The kids cheered some more as each of the 25 were carried into the waves. With a final movement that seemed more akin to flying than actual swimming, the turtles disappeared into the life that was intended for them.
It was, indeed, kind of beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing such great columns! I especially liked this one because it reminded me of when I was in Puerto Vallarta and was able to participate in a turtle release while on vacation! It was a definite high point in our trip!