A volunteer waved us left as we approached the tiny runway shaped to help guide baby turtles towards the sea. During our evening walks we noticed these small runways lined with green edges, centers brushed smooth carefully made ready for turtle nests incubating in the warm July sand past 50 days.
“They’re coming. Please walk over and behind.” The excitement of new life. A small group of people composed of “nest mothers”, volunteers, and the vacationing and local curious was hovering over the patch of sand with a square grate the size of a doormat. The patch had a small crack where the sand caved in the size of my hand. This was an indication of restlessness, cracking, and movement below. The crowd of children, adults and more volunteers grew on either side of the runway as the sun began to set. We all waited. And waited. So did the turtles. They were waiting for the sand to cool as a sign of the waning sun that would make it easier to hide from predators. As the sun dipped, they rose and boiled like small dark shadows rising out of the growing hole in the ground.
Am I seeing this? The instinct is to shed light on this miracle. But light is exactly what they are avoiding. Light disorients budding life. They turn away and go in the wrong direction. “They have been listening to the ocean this whole time, they know to move towards the sound,” a volunteer explained while encouraging us to use our “inside voices” so the turtles can hear the ocean calling them. Or is it the magnetic pull? The ocean is like the mother’s heartbeat for a human baby emerging out of a uterine water sac. The baby moves towards the light, and a turtle also moves towards the moonlight on the water. Lights on the beach confuse them, they move in the wrong direction away from the water and into the grips of a predator. The beauty of turtles rising together. This I’ve learned affords survival of the species, many are sacrificed to predators so a few can live and serve a larger commitment to life. We humans have so much to learn from these tiny dark, squiggly, directed shadows. We can stand by, watch, guide, and mostly care enough to stay out of their way and keep other humans from staying out of their way…waving them to go around or stop shining light on the fragile eyes looking for the ocean. It is a practice of humble awe. A gentle suggestion that perhaps we are not the center of all life.
Sea turtles are a protected species. The Oak Island Turtle Protection Program is on a mission to monitor and protect the sea turtles and to foster community-based conservation…basically to wave us away from trampling the turtles and to welcome us to come close without shining light and with hushed reverence. In the three weeks of living here sitting on the sand alongside the turtle runway was the first and most satisfying sense of community I have experienced. No power, monetization, or exclusivity. The simplicity of a random community of curious humans channeling and watching small shadows scurry to glistening dark waves. It was magnificent.
The turtles are protected from industrial pollution and natural predators. We are among that list of natural predators. In my efforts to learn about the region I now call home, I researched a few cookbooks available at the local library. One of the cookbooks entitled “The Beachcomber’s Handbook of Seafood Cookery” by Hugh Zachary (1969) shares a Sea Turtle Stew recipe. The author prefaces the recipe with a story about gathering eggs from the beach, a culture of turtle hunting, followed by a plea. He writes,
“I saw a couple of huge loggerheads that had been killed, wantonly killed, on Long Beach, not for their meat, but just for the fun of killing something so large, apparently. I like turtles. I like turtles better than I like some people – namely people who would kill a big loggerhead just for the experience. Loggerhead turtles are a vanishing breed. It’s fun to go turtle hunting during a full moon in a warm month on a nice night. It’s an interesting experience to find a big turtle on her nest and watch her lay eggs and cover them with her awkward, instinctive, and utterly laborious movements. My sympathy goes out to the big beast who comes out of her natural element to try to fight the odds against the survival of her species.
Let’s don’t eat loggerheads.”Zachary, Hugh. (1969) The Beachcomber’s Handbook of Seafood Cookery. Kingsport Press: Tennessee.
On the margins of this recipe page, the library added a note about the law protecting sea turtles.
We humans can be both predators and conservators, vicious and curious. Sitting there watching the baby turtles a representation of life itself flapping, flailing, scurrying, blind and confused, I was reminded of the choice. As food curious as I am, I am okay letting turtle meat remain a mystery. I don’t know what my line is for eating other living beings, is it endangered animals? Or like Mr. Rogers who avoided anything that had a mother? Eat flesh out of necessity or politeness? Practice a generally plant-based diet? I don’t have my own answer, let alone have one for you. All I can say is that I hope to be aware of and own my choices today. Tomorrow may be different. Last evening it felt good to be among a community of humans who chose to stand together and aside watching life emerge out of a dark small crack in the earth.
Thank you baby turtles. I hope you live a long life and return to this beach as a place of safety and care. We’ll wait for you.
For lunch today, cereal with frozen blueberries sounds refreshing.
Wishing you thoughtful eating,