The previous post was a poem I wrote around 20 years ago. I don’t know why I wrote it, except that, somehow, I sensed some magic there.
Yesterday at 6:30 my family and I drove to Canaveral National Seashore for a Turtle Watch. The guides said they hoped to get a female loggerhead nesting early so that we could see the entire process. I was nervous; what if after all this planning and anticipation, no turtle shows up? What if I’ve brought my family out here, used some of our precious Florida time, exposed them all to bug bites and late-night drives, for no payoff? Worse, what if the whole thing is underwhelming? What if the magic isn’t there?
We drove to the beach and immediately were informed that a volunteer had spotted a loggerhead crawling up the beach right by the boardwalk. We were to be quiet and careful as we walked onto the beach and formed a semi-circle behind her.
And immediately there she was, facing up the beach. A red light behind showed the egg chamber, where over one hundred ping pong ball-sized eggs were dropping into the darkness. She was silent, but the effort caused the turtle to flex her flippers as each egg fell. We watched, amazed.
The volunteer had told the guides that a second turtle had crawled up the beach just after the first one, and I went down toward the ocean a bit to see. There were the crawl marks, unmistakable in the wet sand of the lowering tide. And there was the turtle, looking like a dark log. The Moon was nearly full, and so bright that everything was visible, though ghostly. I glanced between the two turtles, not believing this could be happening. Not just one turtle, but two, on the same beach at the same time. And then –
“Hey, there’s another turtle!” someone shouted. I thought he must be mistaken. There are coquina rocks on the beaches here, some rounded, and low tide exposes them. Surely that’s what the shouter had seen.
But no, there was a third turtle, coming out of the surf and crawling up the beach between the first two! The guide instructed us to back away from the first turtle, so as not to spook the new arrival, and we did so.
The turtle lifted her head, looked around, paused. Then she crawled. One flipper at a time, the beach her ladder, the safety of the ocean further behind her with every pull of her massive body up the beach.
I talked with the volunteer. He said that usually under such circumstances the new turtle would turn back to the ocean (a “false crawl”). But not this time. The turtle kept coming, stopped just a few feet short of the distance of first turtle’s crawl up the beach, maybe 30 feet away total from that first loggerhead. And she started digging, too.
We watched as not one, not two, but three ancient reptiles undertook the ritual performed by their own mothers, and their mothers, and their mothers, back and back and back in time for a hundred million years and more. I almost fell over from the dizziness of thinking of all those turtles, all those evenings, all those crawls and nests. And here it was, in front of me, tonight.
I sat down in the sand and dug absent-mindedly with my own hands, watching as the first turtle tossed sand everywhere. Now the second turtle, the largest of the three and perhaps a more experienced nest builder, finished early and headed back to sea. I watched her go, watched her reach the wet sand, approach the water, feel that first splash of salt on her face, then move into the dark waves and disappear.
The guides talked to me, talked about how they weren’t sure what to do, about how this usually didn’t happen, how they’d considered pulling us all off the beach so as not to disturb the new arrival. But she seemed unfazed, and began laying. The first turtle was finishing now, and I watched her turn her massive body around on top of her nest. She started down the beach, and we followed. She paused, often, and this was unusual, too. Usually, the volunteer told me, once turtles finish their work they make a beeline to the water. Something was slowing this female down.
I studied her. She had barnacles on her back. Her shell tapered down to perfect, sandy back flippers. Those back flippers don’t do much when the turtle swims, I remembered. But for nest building they are amazing digging tools. The turtle’s front flippers were strong, and you see their strength as they dug into the sand and pulled the turtle along. She crawled, paused, crawled some more. The turtle swung her massive head around and looked back at us. What could she possibly have thought of these strange, skinny creatures standing there, swatting flies in the moonlight? The Moon’s shadows were long, and I wonder if our shadows, dancing on the sand, slowed her down.
Finally the turtle reached the sea. The water washed over her face, her flippers, her shell. As the waves rolled in the sand from all her efforts melted away, and she shone in the moonlight. Then quietly, softly, she was gone.
While the guides showed how they protect the nest from raccoons and other predators, the third turtle finished and turned down the beach. I watched her go. She was smaller than the others, and she had worked quickly. She shot down the beach, no hesitation until she reached the water line. Then she stopped, looked around a bit, and slipped into the sea.
Left behind were over 300 baby turtles. There they would stay, changing within their shells through another full Moon, then halfway toward a second. Finally they would burst through the sand and dash toward the sea. As my family and I left this beach, left the eggs to grow and change and finally hatch, I knew.
There is magic in the world.