The Sea Turtle

 

We had begun to despair ever witnessing the laying of the eggs.  We had made two annual trips of 70 kilometers up to ‘Turtle Beach’, north of the Saudi Arabian city of Yanbu.  Each night, we camped out in our tents silently awaiting the arrival of the turtles.  Mounds were everywhere as well as tracks made by the heavy bodies as they trundled their unwieldy half ton shells up from the beach to a suitable nesting site.  Each night we waited but inevitably sleep overcame us.  In the morning, like a Santa Claus visit, evidence of freshly dug and covered nests was there before our eyes.  How could we not have heard the sound?  In bright sunlight, we wandered the shore, finding broken egg shells mixed with dead and occasionally mutilated baby turtles.  The predators obviously were having nightly feasts on the hatchlings.  We knew that only two of each thousand eggs would yield adult turtles who would then return to the same beach several times a year, following the full moon to their parental destiny.  Perhaps next year…

In the third year chance was in our favor.  Quietly waiting on shore, we sensed, rather than saw or heard, the ghostly figure as she moved from waves to shore and slowly onto the sand and rock-covered beach.  We carefully followed her quest, her movements lit by the beam of a small flashlight.  She began to dig, casting sand three or four meters behind her in rhythmic hails.  As she worked, the great beast went into a trancelike state and we carefully advanced for closer observation.  We watched as her initial movements became more and more precise.  The hole now was only a foot in diameter but half a meter deep and, as dry sand yielded to damp, clearly was becoming a receptacle for eggs.  Unexpectedly, the digging turned to scrabbling in increasingly frantic attempts to remove a large piece of buried coral.  Forming a human chain we lowered one of our members, arm extended, into the hole timing the reach with the movements of the desperate flippers.  There!  Success!  The offending piece of coral was extracted and digging continued.  As we lay down beside her on the sand, we noticed copious tears flowing from her eyes.  Suddenly, ping-pong ball eggs covered with a slippery coating began filling the hole.  We lost count at 80.  The hole was the refilled with sand, carefully patted until, with new purpose, the turtle turned and made her way towards the water and the waiting moon.

As we watched her departure, a faint skittering sound off to our right was heard.  A tiny baby turtle, newly hatched, was headed toward our flashlight.  Confused by the light, it was actually climbing away from the water, away from safety.  We reoriented the baby by using the light as a beacon. As it made its U-turn toward the shore, the baby suddenly fell into a hole previously dug by an unsuccessful mother, perhaps frightened by a desert fox.  The baby turtle tried to scramble out of the hole, but fell back each time with the disintegrating walls.  Newly-born and low on energy, it was becoming fatigued.  We carefully reached in and deposited the baby on the incoming tide, using the flashlight’s artificial moon to guide it on its fateful journey to adulthood.

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