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February 9, 2023

What the Last Turtle Taught me About Being Present

Setenta y siete, setenta y ocho, setenta y nueve, ochenta!”

I counted in Spanish as I lifted each baby sea turtle from the red plastic crate and gently placed their tiny wriggling bodies on the damp sand. “77, 78, 79, 80!”

It was a lively hatch, and I was grateful for the early evening release of the newly born Olive Ridley sea turtles. Post sunset, which meant no touristy onlookers crowding the beach, and no hot sun beating down on the sand.

This past Monday, receiving a call at about 8 pm, I had driven down to the empty beach. I walked past palm trees in the dark and across to the hatchery, where I knew the night guard would be sitting quietly.

At his feet was the crate filled with 80 scuffling baby sea turtles, crawling over on top of each other as they instinctually scrambled for the ocean they no doubt could smell in the night air.

The tide was low, and though the moon was only half full, out here in Nicaragua, that half-full moon is enough to light up the entire beach.   No flashlights were needed, nor security lights. The crashing waves calling to us were the only sound. I simply picked up the crate and walked noiselessly across the sand to an ideal spot to release the tortugitas.

The sea turtles wriggled faster as the ocean smell became stronger. They could feel it in their baby DNA – the undeniable urge to move, to swim, to be free. To taste life.

The first few moments of a baby sea turtle’s journey to the sea are essential to its lifelong survival. It is natural to think that relocating sea turtles quickly to the relative safety of the ocean by tossing them straight into the churning sea would be a good idea.

It’s not. They need the crawl.

Their newborn flippers gain strength with each strenuous paddle over the hills and undulating sand as they pursue the sea. Every touch of the sand on their leathery skin makes an imprint in their built-in GPS system, connecting them with this particular beach so that as adults, they will navigate back to nest and lay eggs of their own.

With this in mind, one by one, I placed each of the 80 wriggling, squirming sea turtles on the sand. In the distance, the frothy white of the waves lit up under the moon, a beacon guiding them to their new home.

In no time at all, each little sea turtle, only about 2 or 3 inches long, made its quick moves! They had quite a life of survival ahead of them, but this was their moment, and off they took!

Staring down the flattened, saturated sand, they littered the beach like wet stones. Seeming still at times, but then spidering away towards the water, as if in a race. Each of them eager for their aquatic destiny.

All but one.

Close to my feet was one last little turtle.

Let’s call him Oliver.

“What’s going on, Oliver?” I asked him. (For real I did this. Out loud. I held one-sided conversations in Spanish and English with those sea turtles the entire time I released them, telling them how proud I was of them and encouraging them to be strong and to go for it.)

“Oliver, what are you doing? All your buddies are already nearing the waves.” I squatted down to get a closer look at him in the night. He was okay. Just kind of chilling there by a shell. Looking north up the coast instead of west into the ocean like he was expected to.

Watching his siblings swim away into the vast dark and moony sea, I wondered – was he the slower of the clutch?

I thought about it for a minute. It was a big cold ocean. One that I am fearful of myself. The waves roll fast, hard, and loud. And this time of year, the water is ice cold.

Was Oliver fearful?

“Oliver”, I told him, “Don’t worry. Your little flippers are strong, your shell is solid – you got this, buddy!”

He was built for it, ready for it, hatched and awake and crawling – but he just didn’t seem to want to go.

Maybe he was feeling inadequate – sitting there, still and silent on the sand. Did he cradle that sinking feeling that everyone else was making it in life except for him?

Did he suffer, as so many of us do, from self-doubt in those moments?

Maybe. I resonated so much with little Oliver just then. The feeling of being fully equipped, of knowing in your heart what is meant for you, of finding yourself perfectly positioned for a moment of action, but in the same moment, tasting the salty uncertainty.

A moment when comparing yourself to others who are faster, more successful, and smarter than you slow you down. You feel you are sinking in the sand instead of flowing with the motion of the ocean.

“I get it, Oliver. These thoughts induce panic.”

But was he slower than the others? Or was he actually smarter?

Perhaps he was being present while he could. The reality was that once he hit the waves, there was no turning back. He’d be a sea turtle in the sea for another 20 years at least. Not too long ago, he had been snuggled with his family, buried two feet deep in the toasty warm sand. He’d been at peace. He’d had companions. He had been safe.

Now, he was suddenly staring down into the dark, seemingly alone, at a frigid roaring ocean that was coming for him. It was kind of scary. Kind of intimidating and . . . rushed.

It could be that he knew deep inside what was awaiting him in that unfamiliar, cold, and watery world. Perhaps Oliver was purposefully lingering in the feeling of warmth, the sand on his flippers, the stars winking at him from the sky.

Maybe he knew those moments there with me on the beach were all he had of protection and calm, and he was just dragging it out.

Thinking about it, I didn’t blame him. “Take your time, buddy. There’s no danger on the beach right now. There’s no rush to swim. Take a good long look up at all those stars and that bright, shiny moon while you can.”

So we waited on the empty beach, Oliver and I, the waves ceaselessly breaking in the distance. The night sky twinkling its greeting down to us.

A furious wave broke ahead, and I watched the incoming tide spread wide, bubbly, and foamy, speeding the chilly ocean toward us both.

The tide was shallow for me, and only encircled my ankles, sinking them slightly deeper into the sand, but Oliver – Oliver was engulfed.

The swift tide swooped him up wholly, and his little body was carried up the sand in seconds. I watched as the ocean water moved as high up the beach as that last wave could stretch.

As the momentum of the water slowed and changed direction, and the tide began receding back to the sea, only then did little Oliver start swimming. His little flippers paddling as fast as they could go in the current, his entire body under the water. “Swim, Oliver!”

As I watched, two of his brothers (sisters?) who I hadn’t seen any signs of in about 6 or 7 minutes had been carried back up the beach with this last wave too. They joined Oliver in this last sweep of tide, wriggling as much in the water now as they had wriggled in the sand earlier.

I guess not everyone was as further ahead in life as we had thought.

In that moment, we were all in the same place, within the chilly sea, under the same half-lit moon, eyes towards the same crashy ocean. We were all part of the same magic.

Moments later, this last spill of tide carried Oliver and his two reunited siblings back towards the dark sea. I watched their shadows on the water for as long as I could, as they were taken by the wave, into the ocean they were destined for.

I wondered if Oliver felt fearful, or if he felt ready. I wonder if those last moments on the sand under the stars gave him the courage he needed or at least a little peace before his tumultuous journey in the ocean began.

When I was sure this last surge of tide had pulled them deeper into the rolling waves and kept them there, only then did I turn to go.

“Good luck, Oliver,” I said to the frothy waves and walked with cold bare feet across the beach in the moonlight, an empty plastic crate in my hand.

~ Christy

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