From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

With a Little Help from Her Friends

I drove slowly along the moonlit beach that night in July, looking, as always, for the telltale tracks of giant nesting sea turtles.

My mission was to apply a special tracking tag on these imperiled marine creatures that are dangerously close to extinction.

As I watched and listened to the surf’s gentle lapping on the shore, my eye suddenly caught the movement of a form emerging from the water. I watched as the silhouette slowly began to ascend the beach. It was a loggerhead sea turtle, repeating the ancient ritual of returning to the beach to lay her eggs near the very place where she was hatched, perhaps fifty or more years ago.

From a distance, I watched as she reached the top of the dune. There, she nestled into the sand using her flippers to clear the area until she created a body pit. For the next thirty minutes, she excavated a nest chamber with her rear flippers, piling sand to either side of her. I heard her labored breathing as she created her nest.

Once the digging stopped, her rear flippers curled up slightly and then relaxed. She had begun to lay her eggs. They dropped into the chamber too fast to count. She might lay 120 or more Ping-Pong–ball-sized eggs, which she never sees. When the chamber was full, she scooped the sand over her eggs, packing it down with her powerful flippers, then wildly casting more sand over the site and over herself to hide her precious eggs. With her nest safely tucked away, she slowly turned and crawled back to the ocean once again.

Quickly, I attached tag number S7113 to her flipper just before the waves washed the sand away from her shell. In an instant, she was gone. Several seconds passed, and suddenly her head reappeared. She exhaled, then disappeared into the moonlit waters. Even after twenty-two years as a volunteer working for the recovery of endangered sea turtles, my heart still felt that indescribable exhilaration as I stood peering into the darkness, hoping for just one more glimpse of her. Nature and timing took care of that.

Two weeks later, several other volunteers joined me, eager to see one of these elusive, mysterious creatures that visit our beaches. We searched for hours under the starry summer night sky. Nothing.

Suddenly, there she was at the edge of a wave, pausing as if to scrutinize for hazards lurking on land, or perhaps, to make sure this was “her” beach. We kept still, hoping she would not notice us, that she would come ashore and nest as her ancestors had done for millions of years. Slowly and arduously, she crawled up the beach toward the dune vegetation.

Although graceful in the water, sea turtles on land are slow and awkward, expending enormous energy nesting, then returning to the sea. This turtle, however, seemed to be moving more slowly, haltingly, then exhaling more loudly, struggling all the more. Three times she started a body pit only to abandon her efforts. Cautiously, and out of her line of vision, I approached her as she was going through the rhythmic motions of creating a body pit for yet a fourth time. My heart was pounding as I moved toward her, praying I would not frighten her away. Just then, I made the most amazing discovery. It was S7113; she had found her way back. Our paths crossed once again, like finding a dear old friend.

But something was wrong—terribly wrong!

As I looked closer at her ponderous shell, it was heartbreakingly clear: Her rear flippers had been completely severed—ripped off—most likely by a shark! Where her flippers had been, there were only bloodied, raw stumps. It was impossible for her to dig her nest! Still, she labored, the instinct to complete her procreative urge so strong, as if she knew this would be her last legacy. What pain she must have felt!

Turtles shed tears while nesting, partly to remove sand from their eyes; but I shed tears of sorrow for S7113, now so vulnerable not only on land but at sea as well. For centuries, we humans have been anything but kind to these magnificent mariners. Perhaps only one out of ten thousand turtles reaches adulthood. S7113 was that rare one who made it. She beat all odds. And now she was facing even greater suffering just to survive.

Gone was the strength and agility to protect herself at sea.

Gone was the autonomy to create a nest for her offspring.

Gone was the carefree ability to navigate the seas at will.

Her wounds would heal remarkably quickly but forevermore, her life at sea was drastically altered.

We were all overcome with compassion and sadness for this hapless animal. Without completing her nesting, S7113 would receive yet another blow to her species’ tenuous future. I had to do something!

Gingerly, I positioned myself flat on the sand so I could mirror her sideways movements and began scooping out sand for her, my hands becoming the flippers she had lost. For at least thirty minutes, we continued in unison, moving side-to-side, digging deeper and deeper. Finally, she stopped and with an audible sigh, began filling the chamber with her glistening, white pliable eggs.

What joy it was to see her future generation fall gently into the sandy cradle. S7113 . . . you did it! We did it! For a fleeting moment, I felt like a sea-turtle midwife! When she finished laying eggs, she and I replaced the sand once again and then, like a blessing, her strong front flippers cast the final spray of sand over her nest. Exhausted, she dragged herself back to the sea, clawing at the sand with only her front flippers, her life-giving task completed perhaps for the very last time.

We all gazed in sheer awe as S7113 disappeared into the watery darkness filled with a sense of sadness as well as joy for having lent a hand in the eternal process of renewal. We knew she might never again be able to nest without a human’s help. All the volunteers left the beach in silent rapture that night, each of us imbedded with a deeper understanding and determination for the mission we had undertaken—to fight for the survival of this threatened gentle mariner, the sea turtle.

I never saw S7113 again. Two months later, her nest hatched and there they were: one hundred or so tiny tracks in the sand made by her hatchlings as they left their nest and bravely headed home to the sea, the cycle now completed. My heart smiled again.

Eve M. Haverfield

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on Turtle Time, Inc., contact P.O. Box 2621, Fort Myers Beach, FL 33932; 941-481-5566; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: www.turtletime.org.]

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