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Sea Turtles

Turtles on my mind
I had made my evenings Hajj to check the tide, so declined Kelly’s invitation to join her when she and her guests made theirs. It was late, muggy for early June and I had guests of my own. Both the Atlantic and beach had been there during every recent visit. It would be there in the morning. Moments later, Kelly flew back into the house breathless and wide-eyed. In a whisper that seemed to thunder she said, "I saw the tracks! I saw the tracks and it was a turtle!"

Now, because that sentence fragment was in the past tense, I concluded my chance to see a loggerhead turtle had also passed. Disappointed by my decision not to go, I hugged and congratulated Kelly on her vision. We had been trying for some time to witness this endangered species’ struggle to perpetuate itself without luck. The few tide-deposited bodies after the shrimpers’ had done their worst, too concerned about what they weren’t catching in safer, deeper waters to care about what their props were perpetrating in the shallows hardly satisfied.

Wrong again, at least about missing the turtle! Maybe it was body language or the lack of effect gravity was having on me but there was no confusion on Kelly’s part. "NO", she clipped into my thoughts! “She's still THERE! She JUST started! The hole is only 9 inches!" More sentence fragments left me befuddled but reality began to dawn. A raft of emotions and questions flitted through the eternity of the next couple seconds. No one of our contingent knew how long this process took. For all we knew, Kelly had risked missing a once in a lifetime event to share this.

Realizing questions could wait, I shrugged off stunned lethargy and rousted my guests. Another eternity passed before six of us were walk/jogging our way to the oceans’ edge. Kelly’s tone seemed calm though the bits of story she peppered into our hike were still coming in hard to grasp waves. You would have thought the cottage was on fire to see our exit but for some reason we all seemed to feel the need for this odd library level of quiet, even though we were a tenth of a mile away.

It was a beautiful night. A brilliant half moon wove a spider web amongst patchy, low flying clouds. The previous crew waited reverently. Mama had just finished the nest and was starting her delivery. I sat, shocked and awed, well behind her but at an angle that provided the best view I dared. Her head was nearly as big as a human’s. Odd though, her face appeared stained by tears. Whether crying from irritants, effort or something completely human was anybody’s guess, but this lent a sweet countenance to otherwise leathery, hardened features. Her body didn't look so big from my vantage but grew with our eyes as she emerged from the crib.

Apparently, even Mama gets partially covered while in the nest. She would sit quietly for a moment and then work more and more of her bulk from the sand. Adult Loggerheads weigh between 200 and 350 pounds so her movements made plenty of room as the nest filled with some of the 60 - 120 eggs each female lays as often as twice, sometimes three times a season. Sadly, only one in each ten thousand of her offspring survive to reproductive maturity.

She broke from her labors with increasing frequency. Her massive head would loll into the sand, exhausted for a moment, and rise with renewed effort. The muffled sounds that issued intermittently from her could only be interpreted as exhaustion. Unconcerned by us, Mama slung sand as best she could, now covering her babies in earnest. Long, capable looking flippers seemed glued to the ground by the effort required to move the few ounces of sand each stroke took with it. The breaks were coming more quickly now. Two or three flips, and then a break. Then a flip, ... then a break. The pattern was broken when, with electric speed, she broke for the tide-line. We were stunned both by her size and by the gouges in her shell.

A few pulls was all that was left to someone who had probably used everything just getting to the nesting site. We fought the temptation to help as she lunged for the water. She was at her business and didn’t need us. Between each wind sprint, she would lay her head in the sand, briefly and noiselessly look up, then more heads-down lunging.

Finally in the high surf, she gathered herself. Her head lolled again as a wave washed away some of her fatigue. She seemed relieved until she looked again and appeared overwhelmed anew by the remaining task. There was still a piece to go before the water’s buoyancy would be of any help to her, but she was clearly invigorated by the prospect. Longer, more sustained pulls got her to a slippery section on the sand and her progress was accelerated. One more rest and she was up to her hips in water. You could almost see her hike her skirt a bit, continuing on a line that traced the moon’s reflection. We watched as the top of her slowly disappeared between the white caps.

Still completely juiced, we made our way home, like Mama, much slower than before. We proudly reported our find to the Kiawah Island town office. Ours was nesting site number 157. The young were due in 50 - 60 days. As luck would have it, that coincided with our anniversary, when we take a week’s vacation. We spent the week baby sitting, as you can imagine, only to learn the nest hatched the day after our return to the hum-drum.


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