Silently we waited for night to fall. Nestled in dunes of chocolate-brown volcanic sand, the I could hear the waves rushing and spilling along the shoreline. I imagined that they too were waiting, invisible, just beyond the water’s edge, paddling through the waves in anticipation of the rising the tide that would bring them into shore.
I held my breath and listened as dusk surrounded us. In the distance, our guide sighted the first. Barely visible in the dark, what appeared to be a large black mound emerged out of the water to ascend the beach. First one, then two, then three, and four came into view. Slowly but steadily each slowly moved forward, leaving a trail of marks in the sand that would later look, to the uninformed observer, like the wide, indented tires of some misplaced piece of construction equipment. It is not easy to carry a shell weighing anywhere from 500-700 pounds through the sand using only flat finned-shaped feet designed for swimming.
Invincible to any predator on land or sea, the female green turtle (Chelonia mydas), so named for greenish hue of their skin, is extremely shy and sensitive to light. In fact, scientists think that hatchlings use the reflection of the moon’s light upon the ocean to orient themselves in the right direction when they first emerge from their nests. Lights along the beach when a nest is hatching are known to cause the turtles to head inland, where they will not survive, rather than towards the water where they will find the protection and food necessary to ensure their growth.
For the adult female, any flash of white from even just a flashlight will cause her to turn and flee back into the sea without laying her eggs. I had seen this happen the night before when a group of tourists had come onto a more public beach with flashlights. Even at a distance, their lights frightened a female who had already made it half way up the beach. Not one to take any chances with her precious cargo, she was aborting her journey in order to disappear back into the waves from where she had emerged only a few minutes earlier. I caught a glimpse of her retreating carapace as she hurriedly (for a giant turtle) retraced her steps. Worried about what would happen if she could not lay her eggs, I had asked the guide if she would be alright.
“Ah, yes, in all likelihood she will return tonight, or she will go to another beach. If she is ready to lay (her eggs), then she must do so.”
We continued to protect the darkness for this evening’s visitors, sitting huddled together in quiet conversation so they could reach their destinations undisturbed. Others, invisible to us, were already emerging along the beach, they too intent upon their journey to their rookery – sand dunes lining the upper edge of the beach. Some of them, after 40 years, were coming to the same square meter of sand from whence they first emerged out of their sand-covered nests to lay their first clutch of eggs. Others had come before, and would continue to come three times a year for 20 years, before retiring from to live out their remaining of their 80 years in the dark blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
In order for gestating turtle embryos to survive and hatch, mama must lay her eggs on sandy beaches so that the growing babies can breathe air through the membrane that surrounds them. They cannot survive if continuously covered with water. Upon arriving at her chosen maternity site, the green turtle will use her front legs to dig a deep hole, into which she can sink the full breadth of her 3-4 foot wide shell. Then using her rear legs, she will dig an even deeper chamber at the base of the hole in which she can safely drop her 100-200 eggs.
After about 30 minutes, our guide left us to check on the status of the earliest arrivals. Using a small red flashlight which would not disturb them, he moved from one to the other to find one who had already started to lay her eggs. Prior to beginning to lay eggs, the female can be easily disturbed. But once she has begun, nothing stops her from her appointed task. It is then when we can join her at the edge of her pit to watch the births.
He led us to her, knelt down and lit the tiny beam of red light. She was massive, her dark round carapace rose up from the center of the large round sandy bed she had dug around herself with her giant flat triangular-shaped flippers to form an impenetrable barrier between the world outside and fragile eggs beneath her. Brown, dark olive or black, it was impossible to tell in the dim red light, her shell was flatter and less dome-like than the shell of the Aldabra land turtle, more like the shells of the turtles who lived in the pond behind my house in Vermont. Grains of sand glinted in the light across it where it had splashed while she was flipping sand away from herself to create a birthing sanctuary for offspring. Her head rested in the sand at the edge of the hole, nose almost buried in the sand itself. She didn’t look very comfortable but then no female of any species who is giving birth probably ever is.
“Wishshshsh, wishshsh, wishsh” I could hear her breath, laboring under the effort it took to drop the creamy white, almost perfectly round, eggs into the deep crevice she had managed to create at the base of the pit, directly below her tail. The precise location of the egg chamber, and its well-defined edges, were impressive, given that she couldn’t have possibly been able to see what she was doing under her shell and had only flat paddle-like flippers with which to dig.
Sitting by her tail, I could see what I could only assume was her cervix distending below it as it contracted to release 1-4 eggs at a time. Looking more like the end of the trunk of an elephant than a human cervix, we watched in respectful silence, as eggs, cloaked safely in the darkness of night, slid gently and easily into the egg chamber below, bathed in a clear glistening fluid. Sea turtle eggs do not have hard shells like those of a chicken, rather they are soft, more like a hard-boiled egg, except that each is perfectly round, and roughly the size of a ping pong ball.
Digging a five-foot wide, 3-4 foot deep pit, laying over 100 eggs, and then burying them all and closing off the nest, is tiring and time consuming. As we watched the mama lay her eggs, we could see her pause from time to time, to rest in between contractions.
“Laying eggs, like giving birth, is painful,” our guide announced, and showed with his light the tears that were forming in the eyes of our new mother. I wished I could reach out and massage her neck as I had been able to do with the Aldabras, but she, a creature of the sea, was unfamiliar with the touch of anything, or anyone. Except when mating, the green turtle is a solitary soul who moves through the water with an ease and grace which she does not enjoy when on land.
When she had finally finished, I watched in amazement as her back flippers began to push sand over the top of the egg chamber, and press it firmly down, without apparently damaging a single egg. She repeated the ritual again and again. Push and press, paddle and pat, rest for a moment, then resume. Push and press. Paddle and pat. Pause to rest, then push and press again.
It would take her 2-3 hours to bury the nest completely. Once she was satisfied that the egg chamber was well-covered, she would begin to use her front flippers to fill in the larger hole at the bottom of which the eggs were safely tucked away. By the time she had finished, she would be very tired, but her work would not be done yet, as she would still have to make her way back down the beach to reenter the water almost exactly at the point where she left it, as her return trail of prints would show. Walking along the beach, we could see pairs of prints, alongside one another, one a path to the rookery, the other, the trail to return home.
I tried to imagine a human female having to do as much work as she had to do, both before and after giving birth, and shook my head. Then I remembered that human labor can last up to 24 hours or more. Perhaps birthing turtle eggs had its advantages: The mama turtle might be tired of climbing and digging, but she does not, I don’t believe, have to endure intermittent pain for 12-24 hours.
There are not many places where one can see the green turtle nesting. But one can almost always be sure to see at least one on this tiny beach on Moheli island in the Comoros. According to scientists who have studied this breeding site, an estimated 20,000 eggs are laid each year, only 1-2% of which will reach adulthood. Not every nest will hatch, nor will every egg and those that do hatch are vulnerable to predators both on the land as they make their way down to the water after they hatch, and in the water until they become larger. Those whom we could see were the chosen few hatchlings who managed to beat the odds. I had been lucky the day before to find more than a dozen.
We were also been able to find two baby turtles that day, a more rare occurrence. Usually, they hatch together and make the race to the water en mass, thus reducing the chance that they will be caught by an airborne predator. Only the most intrepid turtle seeker is likely to find themselves on the beach when this occurs.
The first we found in the late afternoon, at a site which was active in the morning, and where the guide had hoped we might still find a few babies digging their way out of the nest. He dug in the sand to hasten the search and, sure enough, one appeared. Barely larger than a silver dollar, and slightly oblong in shape, with tiny flippers a all four corners, the first hatchling was paddling madly in the sand as she endeavored to climb out of the nest. The guide continued to dig for a few minutes more, but apparently she was the only one left in her family. We turned our attention to her progress.
“Can we help her?”
“No, she needs to make the journey herself… but you could lift her out of the pit.”
And so we did. Without missing a beat, she made a beeline for the water’s edge as soon as we placed her on the sand. Flanking her on either side, we solemnly escorted her to the water’s edge, just to make sure that no one could swoop in and take advantage of her solitary journey. She dove into the first wave without hesitation and we watched her tiny head bobbing in the water for as long as we could. She made good time for her first swim, as if she had been swimming for her entire life. Soon she was out of sight, and we congratulated ourselves on playing our part in helping her, perhaps, make into the 1% who would one day return to this place to birth another generation of sea turtles.
We almost missed the second baby. In fact, we would have except that I had begged everyone to stay out a little bit longer to look for one more birthing mother before we began our hour and half long journey through the darkness to return to our lodge. It had been a long day, but I was loathe to leave, as I knew that tomorrow would be my last day on the island. Greedily, I wanted to have as much time as I could among these majestic mama who had magically appeared from the world of water to bless us, bound for eternity to the land, with their presence.
We caught sight of him as the guide’s light swept across the sand when he turned to go and search for another mother. He was almost right under our feet, in the base of a large sand pit, possibly the nest where he had hatched, or an old nest into which he had fallen trying to make his way down to the beach from where he had hatched. I shuddered at the thought of how closely one of us came to stepping on him. The guide went racing up the side of the pit, to see if there was a nest above it out of which others were emerging, but soon returned, disappointed. He was the only one.
Like the first, our discovery was furiously paddling in the sand to climb out of the hole that he was in. Once again, as I had learned in our previous turtle parenting class, I plucked him out and set him on the edge of the nest. We waited, watching like proud parents, for him to skedaddle his way straight down to the water’s edge as his predecessor had. But he was having trouble, he kept heading back from where he had come, rather than moving forward to where he needed to go. I lifted him up again, walked a little further down the beach, and placed him so he was facing the water. Again, he turned back. Again, I tried. And again, he paddled in a circle, as if he had lost his sense of who he was and where he was meant to be.
“He’s really tired”, the guide said. “There are no other hatchlings around, and it is late.”
Apparently a late bloomer, he had had to dig his way out of his nest all alone, without the help of his siblings. He was just plain tuckered out.
“You’d better take him all the way down to the water.”
I gently picked him up by the outer edges of his shell and walked him towards the shoreline, all the while his flippers peddled madly in the air. I tried to set him down at the edge of the water, so he could dive into it the waves himself, as the first one had. But I miscalculated, and a wave came and swept him away. I waited to see if he would wash back up on shore. But he did not. Apparently he too already knew how to swim.
I knew that the odds were as much against him as our first rescue, perhaps even more since he was apparently starting his first voyage more fatigued than he should have been. But I was still pleased. He had a chance that he hadn’t had before and, even if he did not survive to adulthood, he would leave the world where he belonged, with deep blue waters swirling around him, midst others of his kind, instead of alone in a pit of dry sand out of which he was simply just too tired to climb.
As I turned to gaze one last time at the waves gently splashing along the shoreline, I could see him in my mind’s life a tiny flipper and wave it in my direction, just before he dove in the next wave. It was, I imagined, his way of thanking us for bringing him to that place where he could enjoy a lightness of being unlike anything he had ever known before. It was good to be home.
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