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Exuberant Whales and Frantic Turtles

My son and his wife live in Mexico. Gail and I hadn’t seen them in a long time and had never been to the town they moved to four years ago. If one is able, it’s rarely a bad idea to get out of Maine in late February. We flew to Mexico City where they met us and then drove west two hours to their mountain town. How inspiring and comforting to be in a community that has persisted sustainably since the 1500s, with small homes along narrow streets all within walking distance of a central market. Many communities in the U.S. are trying to reorganize themselves using this model. In the early morning we could walk – not drive – to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and bread from farmers and bakers my son and his wife know as friends.

After a few days there we continued west to the Pacific coast and rented a small house in a fishing village. My first thought was, “Why do I live in Maine?” Here were coconut palms, broad flat white sand beaches, brown pelicans cruising in undulating skeins over the crests of breaking waves, exotic – for us – birds like squirrel cuckoos, rose-throated becards, frigate birds, and raucous white-throated magpie jays which sport a black-and-white topknot that appears to spray from the top of their heads like the spout of a whale.

We spent time hiking, swimming, eating, talking, reading and just staring at the open sea.

One morning I saw – maybe a quarter of a mile off shore – what appeared to be a leaping marlin or swordfish, a long slender gray and white thing rising well above the surface and then crashing down. Repeatedly. I got the binoculars. Not a marlin. It was the front flipper of a humpback whale – rising up to vertical, then twisting slightly like the giant arm of a baseball pitcher to gain momentum, and slamming into the water. Huge explosions of spray. Suddenly a young whale, maybe 25 feet long and not the owner of the huge flipper, leapt totally out of the water and crashed back. More flipper slamming, more calf leaping. Then the mother leapt twice – all 50 feet and 40 tons of her. She did not clear the water like her offspring, but nearly, and the splash was tremendous. She rolled on her back and slammed both flippers at once. This show went on and on. The mother and the calf were playing, egging each other on to make bigger splashes and probably louder crashes, although the wind and surf on the shore made it impossible to hear. Such exuberance! Such joy to be alive! For me watching, hyper aware of our wounded and diminished world, this display was a blessing. I wondered if the whales shared my sense of the condition of the world and this was their answer.

Later, an hour before sundown, we walked down the beach to Roberto’s Bistro which featured an array of plastic tables and chairs in the open on the beach, and more of them under the red Spanish tile roof closer to the bar and smoking grills. Many such restaurants adorn the shore where people come to eat, drink and watch the sun set into the Pacific. But Roberto’s has an added inducement. For years Roberto’s has collaborated with local sea turtle conservation and restoration groups who collect turtle eggs by flashlight at night just as the mother turtle finishes scraping a hole in the sand and depositing her eggs. Many predators – mostly local dogs now – including people, rob the nests for the tasty eggs. The turtle protectors scoop up the eggs and then rebury them behind and under a mesh fence on the beach adjacent to the restaurant tables. Each nest is marked with the date collected and the expected time of hatch.

If you are lucky, some turtles will have hatched the day you arrive, and you can witness the release at sunset. The day’s hatchlings are kept in a large blue plastic tub until the right time. We didn’t see the tub right away because six young children were kneeling around it, fascinated with the seething mass of about 120 babies, an average number from one nest. The little turtles – uniformly dark gray, rubbery, identical – in the bottom of the tub were climbing all over each other, levering themselves with front flippers which are nearly as long as their shells. Each turtle is not much bigger than my watch or maybe the lens of my glasses, but the energy of each seems infinite, a turtle-shaped packet of adrenalin. Later we were told that when they make it to the water, they don’t stop swimming for three days. Although instructed not to, the kids couldn’t resist touching them; no other word except “cute” seems accurate. I wanted to hold one, too, not so much because of its cuteness, but because I wanted to be in touch with its energy.

Just before sunset three young men cordoned of a 20′ by 40′ area of beach open to the pounding surf. About 30 people – gringos and Mexicans, equally – waited outside the perimeter. One of the men gave a talk about the natural history of these endangered Ridley turtles and how they were trying to protect them and asked us all to make a small donation. Some did. He said that only one baby in a thousand survives to adulthood. Natural predation on land and in the water takes a huge toll, but human intentional harvesting of turtles and eggs and unintentional destruction through pollution and fishing practices is far worse.

They dumped the tub at the line of the cordoned area farthest from the ocean. Finally, the turtles were able to orient that frantic energy, heading immediately for the water, each waggling forward with a mechanical motion that left a trail like stitching in the sand. I wondered if each trail was in some minute way distinct, a scribbled signature, a short story that would, in most cases, end abruptly. One baby outraced all the others, traversing the bumpy, foot-printed sand as if it were no obstacle at all, and then sped down the flat, hard wet sand toward the sea. A huge wave broke. Its surge swept the turtle sideways in a bubbly froth, flipping it over and over, only flipper tip and head visible; then it was gone, its track erased. Another group of 12 babies squiggled right behind the first – whoosh! They were gone. Within a few minutes it was over, except for a runt who had not been able to climb out of a footprint in the sand where the tub had been dumped. One of the men picked it up and placed it in the water.

It was joyous and heartbreaking to witness the beginning of this turtle journey. It seemed absurdly unfair – the odds of survival approaching those of winning the lottery. A creature the size of the palm of a two-year-old child’s hand diving into the vast Pacific! A few hours earlier each one had been struggling in the dark to extricate itself from a leathery egg and climb to the surface of the beach so it could charge into the sea. As the turtles raced to be thrashed in the surf, their progress seemed immensely hopeful and immensely cruel. The only hope against those absurd odds is the sheer multitude of squiggling rubbery bodies flinging themselves into the breach. Millions of baby Ridleys do just that on beaches from South America to Africa to India to New Zealand.

Earlier in the day we had seen whales in exuberant play. The tiny turtles, though, were all exigency, instinct, survival, extreme vulnerability. The stories appeared incompatible. On this vacation, we were much more in tune with the whales. As each baby turtle is driven forward by instinct, I presume there is no conscious thought, but neither is there the impediment of fear nor the necessity of courage. Nor is there probably anything we might call happiness. The impulse to dive into the crashing sea is a genetic commandment. It occurs to me that this instinct is also in profound harmony with nature. Its beauty, its terror, its frantic engagement to the cycle of life and death and life again implies a kind of absolute commitment. That is, the turtle hatches into a pre-determined idea, an idea that most humans spend a lifetime denying. We prefer to see ourselves as separate from and superior to the impulse that controls the turtle. What was so moving to me on that beach at Roberto’s Bistro was ultimately not the drama of the cute little turtle scrambling into a merciless ocean – an act few humans would contemplate – but, rather, that the baby turtle in some sense understands and accepts without question its place in nature. More likely than not, that place is not named survivor but scrumptious tidbit fueling another species’ survival. I was reminded of Mary Oliver’s lines about the world’s insistent calling to each of us, like the exciting and harsh calling of wild geese, announcing “over and over” our “place in the family of things.” So much more pain and mischief results from the refusal to accept that place.

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