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This year my family and I are visiting Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. As usual on these ocean pilgrimages, I plan on taking my daily early-morning walk on the beach to see what I will see.

Our trip is still a few weeks away, and will fall in the heart of sea turtle nesting season. Already, there are thousands of baby turtles safe and snug in the sands of Sanibel. Will this be another near-record year for loggerheads in Florida? Check out this website to watch the daily egg count tick ever upward.

http://www.seaturtle.org/nestdb/?view_beach=337.

In other ocean news, I’ve joined an online reading of Moby Dick.

http://roofbeamreader.com/2014/05/18/moby-dick-a-whale-of-a-read-along-sign-up-post/

I’m looking forward to perhaps gaining some insight into why this book is still haunting me nearly two years after I read it the first time.

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This morning Julie and Caroline get up with me and walk north along the beach. It is a beautiful morning and the water is warm. The tide is low, but coming in. We watch the coquina clams, and I share with Julie my discovery of yesterday.

We reach turtle nest 30, then turn around and head back for the condo. They go back upstairs, while I cross the road and head south, in search of my rained-out fiddler crabs.

It’s amazing how still you have to be to get these crabs to come out of their holes. I lay on the pavement, watching, holding my camera in position, watching the sandy mud flat that is washed by Boca Ciega Bay at high tide. Now, with the tide still fairly low, I can clearly see the little round crab holes. But no crabs. Yet.

Then, finally, my patience pays off. The crabs come out and begin sifting through the sand for little bits of food. I snap a few pictures, barely breathing. The crabs are hard to see, but if you look in the top center, you can barely make out his claw. I’ve cropped this section below, though it’s pretty blurry.

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What can I say? I’m new to this whole photography thing.

Fiddler crabs are pretty amazing. The males use those large claws to communicate to females and to warn away other males. You’ll see them, once they’ve adjusted to your presence, waving those claws in the air for all to see. Another example of sexual selection, since clearly they’re making themselves more vulnerable to predators by making such a show of themselves. Oh, what we men to to attract women!

Even more amazing is this: if a male loses a large claw in a fight, the small claw (the one used for unimportant things like feeding) will actually start growing into a large claw, and the formerly large claw will regenerate into a small claw. So the crabs go from right-clawed to left-clawed, or vice-versa. A neat trick; I’m sure there are a few baseball managers who wish that would work with their bullpens. Just whack off a pitcher’s right arm and in a few days you’ve got a southpaw.

I headed back for the beach and my turtle nest. We fly out tomorrow morning, so this will probably be my last chance to commune with nest 62. I hope it does well. You can keep track of nest 62 and all the other nests on the beach at this website, though as of now they haven’t updated since I’ve been here. I’ll keep watching.

 

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As I walked back along the surf line, watching the sand, I heard thunder off to the east toward Tampa. Maybe a storm had rolled in off Tampa Bay in the morning. Strange to hear thunder with the Sun shining brightly. I walked up the beach and rinsed the sand off my feet. As I sat waiting to dry a little, Florida gave me the first of two morning surprises. Just like yesterday, a rainbow appeared in the sky over the ocean. This time I got it. You can even see the CMA sea turtle nest spotter truck driving along the beach just under the rainbow.

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Florida is full of surprises, and Julie got another one as I was writing this blog; a baby lizard hiding on Alyssa’s snorkel gear. Probably newly-hatched, in 24 hours the balcony will be his – at least until the next family arrives to savor the wonders this place has to offer.

Before that, though, I have one more beach walk – a short one, to be sure – planned for Saturday morning.

It’s dark this morning, but I spot four figures in brightly-colored clothing already on the beach just to the south of the fishing pier. A little annoyed that anyone beat me to the beach, I decide to go north. As I get closer, though, I realize that what I thought were human figures were actually just tied-up beach umbrellas, left in place overnight. I change my mind and head south, instead.

I walk a long way in the darkness, watching the sand for movement. All I see are coquina clams – lots and lots of them. Whole beds of coquinas, washing along in the swash zone. As I watch them, I notice something peculiar.

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The coquinas near my feet do the expected thing: when the surf rolls back, they dig into the sand and disappear. However, the coquinas further down the beach slope don’t dig themselves in. As I watch, these clams dig themselves out! In a moment I have a guess as to why.

It’s around 6:00 am. Low tide was around 4:00, so this is an incoming tide. Of course, I realize with a start. The coquinas can’t only dig in. If they did, they couldn’t move with the changing tides. Instead, they must dig in only when they reach the top of the swash zone, and dig out when lower. That lets the incoming wave wash them up the beach.

I watch a few more beds of coquinas to see if my guess matches with their behavior. Yes! Every time I see a bed of coquinas down low, they dig out of the sand as the wave recedes. Then, when those same coquinas get washed up higher by the next wave, they dig into the sand and disappear beneath my feet. Amazing.

Next I realize that this behavior must change as the tides change. They can’t only let themselves be washed up the beach. They must also let themselves be washed down the beach during a receding tide! On Friday, when I’ll be on the beach all day long, I’ll test this guess against reality.

Of course, I know this isn’t some great discovery. It’s almost just common sense, and I’m certain if I studied the literature on coquina clams and the swash zone this behavior will be well-known and well-studied. But to me, it’s a new discovery, deep, beautiful, and exciting.

Like all such discoveries, it suggests far more questions than answers. I wonder next, how to the clams do it? How do they know when to alter their behavior? How can they tell if the tide is swelling or receding? I can’t tell, not without the internet in my pocket (or at least a tide table). How do these tiny mollusks know?

Are they programmed to their specific beach? If I took coquinas from this beach and placed them on another with very different tide times, would they ever adjust? Or is their internal clock independent of outside influence? How could so much knowledge reside in this tiny shelled creature?

Mysteries are wonderful things; I can’t wait to explore this one some more.

This long barrier island just south of Clearwater Beach is relatively litter-free; even so, I do come across the occasional thoughtlessly-left bit of trash on the beach. Now I find a gall0n-sized zippered plastic bag, and I decide to grab it. Plastic bags are the mortal enemies of sea turtles, who eat them thinking they are jellyfish.

Humans are remarkable creatures, I think as I carry the wet bag up the beach toward a trash can. We’re capable with our brains and our technology of utterly transforming an environment, making it totally unsuitable for the natives. We are also the only creatures that try in any way to mitigate their impact. Maybe I just saved a sea turtle’s life.

I decide to sit on a bench just there and watch the ocean for a while. The Sun is coming up behind me now and the gulf is turning green. Such a lovely sight. I will miss this when I’m gone.

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Later, I’m lying on a boat ramp into the Boca Ciega Bay, trying to get a picture of a shy fiddler crab. The crabs scurry into their holes on my approach, but if I sit very still, they will eventually forget about me and come out. I get them to reappear, but only then think to take a picture. My movement to get my phone out spooks them, and they disappear. I prepare to wait once again, this time with camera aimed. Unfortunately, those clouds in the picture above are moving west to east, and as soon as they hit the cool morning air over the land, the skies open up and the rain starts pouring down.

I’m not concerned about myself, as the rain is just cool enough to offset the heat of the rising Sun. But I am worried about my phone, so I head for some shelter. There’s a trash can there, and ironically inside is a plastic grocery bag. I pull it out – still clean – and wrap up my phone. Now I can head back out, and I’m excited to do so, because I know enough geometric optics to realize what’s coming next. The Sun is in the east, where the sky is clear. The rain is coming in from the west. I’m about to see a rainbow on the beach!

As I head down the nearest public access, there’s the rainbow. Beautiful, and I immediately start thinking what I always think when I see this marvel. Does understanding the rainbow really make it less beautiful? Of course not. I think again about the coquinas, and my “discovery” earlier that morning.

The first person to understand where a rainbow would appear in the sky must have gotten an enormous thrill, the same thrill I received from my coquina realization. And just as with my coquina discovery (as Richard Dawkins pointed out in his book on the subject), learning one truth about the rainbow didn’t just answer questions, it raised them. Studying rainbows led to the discovery of the true composition of light, its various wavelengths and frequencies. This led in time to the connection between frequency and energy, which in turn led directly to quantum mechanics, the structure of the atom and, eventually, to the age, size, and birth of the universe itself. Not bad.

Between all this reverie and the plastic bag protecting my phone from the rain, by the time I got a picture taken the rainbow was just about gone. Who knows, maybe it wouldn’t have shown up, anyway; I’m still very new at this whole photography thing. But even without a visible rainbow (trust me, it was there just in the left part of the shot), I still think I managed a pretty picture. What do you think?

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(Yes, that’s a sea turtle nest – though not “my” nest, it’s further off to the left – in the center of the photo.)

Only two more beach walks, and then it’s back to landlocked Ohio. Oh, dear.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium has already counted 52 sea turtle nests as of June 12. Several are close to where I’ll be staying. I’m looking forward to walking the beach every morning. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be the first to see a set of fresh tracks, or even a late arrival just finishing her work.

There’s something magical about sea turtles returning to their home sand to build their nests and lay their eggs. It’s in the long history – sea turtles have been performing this rite every spring for millions of years. It’s in the length of the journey – some sea turtles swim across half an ocean just to reach the beach from which they were born. It’s in the sadness I feel knowing that barely 1 in 1000 hatchlings will survive. No, I don’t believe the turtles themselves feel that same sadness, though the mothers do “cry” salty tears as they make their way up and down the beach. These mothers will never know their babies, of course; by the time the hatchlings scramble madly down the beach the mother will be far, far away.

It’s also in the way mysteries merge. The nighttime arrival from the dark and unknown sea. Not unknown to the turtle, of course, as it is her only home. Instead, it is our world of sand and air and beach chairs that is the mystery to her. It is the only time in her life she will venture onto land; what a terrifying journey it must be for her – if turtles can feel such emotions.

It is in the eggs, left cozied into their surrogate mother the sand. Born from the land, the warmth of the Sun and the cool night breezes, these tiny bits of life will literally swim down the beach until that first wave of salt water passes over their bodies and carries them out into the dark and dangerous sea that will be the only home they’ll ever know.

These creatures have seen our planet change and move over the millennia. They’ve seen other species come and go. They’ve watched our own species rise from a small, naked ape who fearfully approached the shoreline to a creature capable of sailing the seas, exploring its depths, and altering forever the lives of every other creature on the planet.

Don’t get me wrong; I think people are amazing, fantastic, the most significant creatures this planet has ever produced. But our way isn’t the only way. There’s something to be said, too, for an animal that lives its life quietly, away from the light and the noise, in my very favorite place on Earth, the place where the ocean meets the sky.

Here I come!

 

 

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As April shades into May, my heroes spring into action once again. Not baseball players or even high-energy physicists, but sea turtle spotters all along the Atlantic and Gulf coast. It’s time again for sea turtles to leave their watery home and build their nests on the beach.

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I’ve no idea really why sea turtles hold such a fascination for me. But I know that when I grow up (assuming that ever happens), I want to be a sea turtle watcher.

Even though I’m hundreds of miles away from the nearest nest, I can still be a virtual turtle watcher from my laptop. Below are just a few of the websites that will track what could be the biggest sea turtle nesting season in years (more on that below).

Folly Beach, SC

http://www.follyturtles.com/

Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, SC

http://www.bergwerfgraphics.com/

Jeckyll Island, GA

http://www.georgiaseaturtlecenter.org/gstc-blog

Panama City Beach

http://www.turtlewatch.org/

Clearwater and Sand Key

http://www.seewinter.com/about-us/what-we-do/2011-sea-turtle-nests

Sarasota Area

http://www.mote.org/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=EnvironmentalUpdates_SeaTurtleNesting2012&category=Main

Florida summary

http://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/sea-turtles/nesting/

Check out this last link in particular. After a steep decline in Florida loggerhead nests beginning around 2000, loggerheads have made a remarkable comeback. 2012 was just about at the level seen before the collapse, so perhaps the turtles have returned! Notice also that the turnaround started around 2008, the year that The Turtle and the Universe was published. Coincidence? Maybe . . .

Annual Total Nest Counts for Loggerhead Sea Turtles

If anyone knows of other sea turtle nest tracking websites, I’d love to know about them. In the meantime, happy turtle watching!

“There are two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.” – Albert Einstein

I’m not sure Einstein ever actually said this. He did say, though, that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Which if you think about it sort of amounts to the same thing. And that brings me to sea turtles.

What’s the big deal about sea turtles? I don’t really know. I just feel it, somehow.

What I do know is this. Sometime before one hundred and fifty million years ago, a species of turtle went from living on the land (or possibly in fresh water) to living in the open ocean. These turtles became almost perfectly adapted for life in the sea, with two big exceptions. First, they kept breathing air – a pretty dumb thing for a water animal to do, if you think about it. Second, they kept laying eggs on land. Again, a goofy thing to do, especially since turtles and all other land vertebrates evolved from creatures who not only had gills, but also laid eggs right in the water. How much easier their lives might be if they could have recovered these ancient traits?

But because sea turtles both breathe air and lay their eggs on land, their lives are the stuff of epic poetry. A long journey, sometimes across half an ocean or more, ends in a dangerous nighttime crawl out of the waves and up a long, sandy beach. There, the giant turtle, much more at home in the buoying water than in the harsh, dry air, digs a nest to harbor over one hundred small white eggs. Tears stream down her face (we know it’s just her salt glands removing salt and sand, but the poets in us always wonder if it could be a little more). Finally, she covers her nest and returns to the sea, the ocean waves washing the sand from her flippers and dome.

Weeks later, after an amazing transformation that happens with essentially no help from the outside world, more than a hundred baby turtles boil from the sand and scramble down the beach. Their tiny flippers, searching out the water that will support them all the days of their (hopefully) long lives, are oddly ineffective on the sand, yet somehow, finally, they reach the waves. The water buffets their tiny bodies (what an amazing feeling it must be, that first kiss from the sea!) and finally they, too, are gone.

Last summer, for the first time, I saw a mother sea turtle building a nest and laying her eggs. It was a transforming moment for me, something I will never forget. And yet I never thought I’d see the other half of this story, the hatchlings reaching the sea.

On our first day in Folly Beach, SC this year, I discovered that the Folly turtle patrol would be inventorying a recently-hatched nest. My family and I scrambled to the meeting place to arrive by 7 pm. We expected some torn shells, maybe even an unfortunate hatchling or two that hadn’t survived the hatching. Instead, we witnessed a miracle.

Fifteen living babies emerged from the nest, stuck there since the hatching five long days before.

The turtle rescuers moved the exhausted hatchlings to the edge of the surf, and we watched them crawl. They were disoriented and confused, but eventually all fifteen found their way to the water, felt that first kiss from the ocean, and disappeared into the waves.

I have no idea if any of the fifteen will return to Folly Beach decades from now to build their own nests. In fact, it’s unlikely that any survived the night. Their odds weren’t good; only one in a thousand hatchlings makes it to adulthood. But in that moment, those fifteen turtles pulled living from the sand and delivered to their home in the sea was miracle enough for me.

Thank you to my wonderful wife Julie for taking these pictures while I followed the path of the fifteen tiny miracles down the beach. I don’t think I blinked.

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.

night moonless stars

shining waves whisper

singing softly to

silent Sand



head flippers dome

memory guides you

heavy with eggs toward

your own Sand



you know this place

and dig burying

nearly yourself in

the white Sand



you cry do i

see you dreaming of

the babe abandoned

in cold Sand



or are you just

tearing removing

with sea from your rep

tiles eye Sand



struggle slowly

seaward say you prayer

to god of sea or

ancient Sand



or do you only

smell the air?

Father’s Day 2010 and I’m on the Atlantic Ocean with my girls. They all like to sleep in; I don’t. I woke up at 4:30 this morning, but took my time and didn’t hit the beach until around 5:40. I will never forget all that I saw.

Sunrise was at 6:26, and the sky was just beginning to lighten as I started walking north toward Patrick Air Force Base. I saw little shapes scurrying away in the surf in front of me. Ghost crabs. I watched for them as I walked, then saw that a little ways out the dolphins were awake. They and the diving birds like cormorants and pelicans were crazy active. There were also little pops of something in the water, I couldn’t tell what. Every once in a while a little black – something – would pop the surface, then go back under. I wondered what it could be.

About two condos down from ours, I saw a turtle crawl. The tracks went up the beach and back down, stopping at a circular depression just below the line of dune grass. I was certain it had to be a fresh nest. I noticed that the tracks covered all the human footprints and so on from the night before, so they had to be fresh. I wondered if I should call someone, so they could stake off the nest. Now I feel a little silly for thinking that.

I kept walking. In the space of the four or five condos between myself and Patrick AFB I saw at least six turtle crawls.  In one of them, I scared a ghost crab. I was between it and the ocean, and it seemed confused by that. It found an old footprint and hid. I got down on all fours and stared at it. We watched each other for a few minutes, neither moving.

Then I spotted a four-wheeled ATV moving up and down the beach. I remembered from my time on the gulf side that this was what the turtle nest spotters rode, and I wondered if this might be this beach’s spotter.

I saw that they’d stopped near the original nest I found, so I walked that way again. As I got closer I saw that it was a man and a woman. The man was on his knees digging, and the woman was following the tracks. At first I was going to walk past, because I feared they might be poachers. I was actually tempted to call the police. But then the woman waved to me, and I noticed she had a clipboard. Poachers probably wouldn’t have clipboards, I was thinking, so I got closer.

It turns out they were students at UCF, monitoring and counting the nests. The man had taken the eggs out to count them, and as I approached he was putting them back in. I asked if I should have called about the other turtle crawls, and they said no. They patrol the beaches each morning to spot the new nests. I asked if they would stake them out to protect the nests, but the researchers said there are so many nests this time of year that they couldn’t possibly stake them all. They just record the location, mark it in sneaky ways (I won’t say how, in deference to the turtles), and then move on.

Wow. So I saw turtle eggs. Each one with a baby turtle inside, growing and changing. In 60 days or so, that baby would break out of the shell, pop from the sand, and scramble toward the sea. Incredible.

I asked about the little popping shapes in the surf; could those be turtles? They didn’t know, but knew the turtles were out there, mating, waiting for nightfall. Loggerhead females will lay up to four nests during mating season, and the males are out there, too, for obvious reasons.

The Sun was just coming up, but a thick cloud covered the horizon. That’s ok, still plenty of days left to see that amazing sunrise over the water. The clouds kept the Sun from blinding me, and I still saw dolphins, thick as flies, out in the surf. They were everywhere! Lots of times a dolphin would come up right beside a floating cormorant. There were pairs and even triplets of dolphins. Mothers and babies, I guessed. I wonder if dolphins have a Father’s Day?

Anyway, I went up to the condo to try to stir the girls, to let them know about all the wonders out here. No good. Too sleepy. I went back down and just stood in the surf. Little pops were still happening all around. And then it happened. A loggerhead sea turtle stuck its whole head out of the water, not 20 feet from me, and stared me down. I literally gasped, my jaw dropping open and my hands flying to my face.

It’s Sunday, and of course all over the country people are having their moments of Sunday morning religion. That was mine.

I saw a wild loggerhead sea turtle.

I stood and saw many, many more turtles (or maybe the same one many times, though there were at minimum two, since once two heads popped up at the same time). Those little pops? They were turtles! I’d been seeing them the whole time without knowing it. Sea turtles, wild and free and only a few feet from me. And that’s worth getting up for.

One of my favorite science demonstrations starts like this. I ask my audience, “How many of you were ever babies?” Most indicate that, yes, they did begin life as infants. Next I ask if they are bigger now than they were then. Again, general assent.

“How did you get that way?” I ask.

“By eating food,” is the answer I eventually get, sometimes not without a little prodding.

Next I hold up two objects. One is an acorn. The other is a tree limb. Once we establish identity and relative size, I ask, “How does this (the acorn) grow into this (the tree limb)? We eat food to grow. What does the tree eat?

Nine times out of nine point one, the adults prod their children – with the wrong answer! They say things like “soil,” or “sunlight.”

I have to be very careful here, because it’s so important to teach gently. And yet the wonder of the answer is so awe-inspiring that I have to deliver it with all the gusto it deserves. A tree, I finally reveal, is made mostly of air.*

In my book The Turtle and the Universe I discuss this amazing fact in the context of global climate change. Trees turn air (actually carbon dioxide in the air) into wood. When wood burns, that carbon dioxide returns to the air, available for the next tree to consume.

When we burn coal, we’re releasing the carbon dioxide stored up not by a single tree over its lifetime, but rather the accumulated CO2 of thousands of trees, built up layer upon layer for thousands or even millions of years. A millennia’s worth of CO2, reversed in a single afternoon.

All this CO2 can have dire effects on sea turtles. Like other turtle eggs, sea turtle eggs depend on the temperature of the sand to become either male or female. As CO2 in the atmosphere drives up temperatures, more and more sea turtles become female, fewer and fewer turn out to be male. If global temperature change results in a imbalance of males and females, sea turtle populations all over the world could come crashing down.

But, according to Dr. Blair Witherington, a sea turtle expert and author, and one of the scientists I interviewed for my book, higher temperatures could have an even more direct effect on sea turtle nests. It could cause them to disappear altogether.

Witherington worries that as temperatures rise, sea levels increase. Humans, loving beaches almost as much as sea turtles do, build expensive structures right on those beaches. As sea levels rise, we will want to protect those investments. One way to protect beachfront property is to harden the beach, building sea walls or other hard structures that keep the rising water out.

But that which keeps out seawater keeps out turtles, as well. With no beaches to lay their eggs, sea turtles, those ancient mariners of an even more ancient sea, will disappear forever.

The Turtle and the Universe is a book of evolution – evolution of stars, evolution of the elements within those stars, evolution of the planet, and the biological evolution of sea turtles and all other living things. Evolution never stops, but one certain way to end a species’ biological evolution is to drive that species to extinction. It would be a sad end for such a distinguished group of animals.

And yet life, and the universe, often find a way. The Turtle and the Universe is a celebration of what’s possible, what this amazingly creative universe has done so far, and what it may still do in the future. It just may be, as we discover in the book, that it’s “turtles all the way down.”

*OK, for those of you more detail-oriented, here’s the story of photosynthesis. Trees and other plants take in CO2 and H2O and turn these raw ingredients into sugar (C6H12O6) and oxygen (O2). The sugar goes into building the tree – leaves, branches, trunk, and roots. The oxygen is released into the air as waste.

Clearly the carbon had to come from carbon dioxide. Just as clearly, the hydrogen had to come from water. What about the oxygen? The obvious choice is that the tree just splits the carbon off the CO2, combines it with water, and voila, there you have sugar.

But that’s not how it works.

In 1941 four scientists named Ruben, Randall, Kamen and Hyde performed careful measurements using a special kind of oxygen called oxygen-18. Oxygen-18 is heavier than ordinary oxygen (called oxygen-16). By giving one set of plants oxygen-18 rich water, and giving another set oxygen-18 rich carbon dioxide, and then looking for oxygen-18 in the plant’s waste gases, the scientists showed that the oxygen given off by plants comes not from carbon dioxide, but rather from water. The absorbed carbon dioxide stays within the plant. In this way, scientists showed that the dry weight of a tree comes chiefly from carbon dioxide gas, not from water. In fact, around 93% of the tree’s dry weight is from carbon dioxide. Trees are made mostly of air!

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
August 2018
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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