Sunday, January 30, 2011

Follow the Light

One facet of life I have learned to embrace in a town where "tan" is a verb is the absolute lack of any kind of schedule on most days. It takes some getting used to for us over-scheduled Americans with our color-coded calendars, but easing into the day and trusting it to bring it on is a lovely change of pace. I am never disappointed looking back at what has transpired when the sun sinks into the sea at day's end. While my friends in the States are waking up to a Saturday morning and negotiating the commitments of the day with their spouses about who will take X to indoor soccer and who will head to the hockey rink with Y, Bella and I are carrying our white plastic chairs out to the short wall that separates us from the beach to drink coffee and watch the world go by.

Yesterday we exited our casa with the intention of watching the surfers and reading her Wizard of Oz script since Bella is to be a munchkin in her stage debut. As we were settling down in the morning shade, we noticed a few trees down from us a double line of people extending from the top of the playa to the water's edge. Thinking it some kind of Little Mermaid wedding rehearsal where the bride emerges from the sea to join her landlubbing spouse, we turned back to Dorothy when Delbert, the rasta surf instructor, sauntered over and said, "Baby sea turtles are hatching." Now we have watched countless female turtles heave themselves up the beach and have worshiped at their feet with sand flinging in our faces while observing every step of the turtle-egg-laying process on many a star-filled night And recently I was paddleboarding around a mating pair of olive ridleys when an extra male-in-waiting surfaced right in front of me and exhaled loudly. But the running of the babies is the one step in the making of sea turtles that I have never seen. And the fact that a turtle dared to lay her eggs on Tamarindo beach qualifies as a small miracle in and of itself.

I grabbed my camera and we ran over to watch, arriving at the water's edge when what appeared to be the last little guy took his final sandy steps and was introduced to the salt water he would call home for the rest of his or her life. Baby sea turtles do not have sex chromosomes so the ole' pink or blue is completely dependent upon the temperature of their nest. If the eggs incubate at an ideal 83 to 85 degrees they will be a nice mix of each. Anything warmer results in all females and anything colder creates a hundred or more bouncing baby boys. As a wave washed over this particular baby and he was given the old sink or swim mandate, he never hesitated for a second, bravely paddling like a pro away from the crowd of humans photographing his every first step.

With a sigh of happiness and a prayer that this would be the one in a thousand to survive, we began our journey back to the land of Oz awaiting us in our chairs and were just settling down in Munchkinland again when we noticed that folks were still congregating at the top of the beach from whence the baby turtles began their journey. Some of the few things we understand about sea turtles include that they are born with a caruncle - word for the day. A caruncle is a sharp egg tooth which gives the pointy appearance to the little guy here. The caruncle is used by the ninos to break out of their egg shells and then it falls off, bringing to mind a sweet anthropomorphic image of the turtle tooth fairy depositing gifts of tiny molluscs under sea sponge pillows. Once the baby turtles come out of their shells (pun intended) they remain underground in their flipper-deep nests for days slurping up raw egg-yolk from their shells and building strength like Rocky in training, only not for a title match but to survive their first few days at sea during their crash course in deciphering food from non-food.

(This, incidentally, has become more of a challenge for the lonely little turtles thanks to all the tiny floating plastic pellets and tar balls we have introduced to their snack selection, which is one of many contributing factors as to why all six species of the world's sea turtles are listed as threatened or endangered and why you, too, can pay thousands of dollars per week to "volunteer" to save them in countries like this one while the rest of us are busy tanning.)

Meanwhile, back in their hole, the hatchlings chat amongst themselves and determine when it is time to move on up. Then, in a remarkable feat of sibling cooperation unknown in the mammal world, they all coordinate their efforts and work harmoniously to dig themselves up to the surface. Once they approach the light, they resist the urge to break free of the claustrophobic confines of their womb, demonstrating remarkable reptilian restraint by waiting until the sand cools off, which typically signals night. The wee ones can then emerge under the cover of darkness and avoid daytime predators as they scramble towards the sounds and sights of the sea, swimming away to the rest of their lives. The end.

Bella and I then observed people running from the top of the beach to the ocean cradling something in their hands. "What are they doing now?" we wondered as we abandoned Zelda, the wicked witch, to her unlucky fate and returned to have a look. To my dismay, I saw that our Tica neighbor was now on her chunky knees in her housedress digging into the turtle nest and pulling out handfuls of baby turtles and eggs. A group of misguided mammals all joined in on the action, thinking they could somehow improve on what these reptiles had somehow been successfully doing for over 200 million years without them and their supposedly superior intelligence.

To my horror, they started pulling baby turtles out of their eggs and rushing them down to the sea. When a few of us folks tried to curb their enthusiasm, myself included, by begging them to leave them alone, Tica threw her weight around and imparted her infinite wisdom that the nest was too deep and too compacted from, of all things, people walking on it and that these turtles would die if they did not save them. Save the turtles? Even though they did risk becoming breakfast for hovering birds and crabs, the process of crawling the gauntlet from sand to sea is considered to be a critical event in the new life of a baby turtle. They need the exercise to strengthen their flippers for swimming and they need to smell the particulates of their natal beach in order to return once they have survived their "lost years" at sea, having successfully grown to the size of a dinner plate instead of being served on one.

Saddened and concerned, we returned to Oz where only Zelda's legs were happily sticking out from underneath a house. Later that morning Bella and I were walking on the beach past the spot where the turtles had become swimmers when a couple stopped us. "We found this swimming around," the husband said, cradling a baby sea turtle in his hands with some combination of shock and awe. "That is probably because it is disoriented," I told him and informed him that this was where it had had its first swimming lesson that morning. "This would be a good place to put it down and let it crawl back in the water," I suggested. He glanced at his treasured souvenir and determined, "No, I think it's tired. I think I'll hold it and let it rest awhile." "Whatever," I thought resignedly, "I am sure you know best." We walked on, our heads filled with ruby slippers and swimming turtles, towards whatever the rest of the day would bring.


1 comment:

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