t is about 12:30 a.m., I should judge — I can’t see the dial of my watch — on a pleasant summer night in 2002. I am standing with a small cluster of people on the dark shore of Jekyll Island, GA, about midway down the east side of the island. The outgoing tide surges 50 yards away. The only light, besides the stars above, is the red glow from an electric lantern held by a park ranger.
The dim light illumines a loggerhead turtle, which is just completing its annual nesting ritual — throwing sand with its flippers to camouflage the place where she just buried her eggs. In 60 days between 80 and 120 miniature turtles will struggle from the sand pit and make their way to the ocean. Daughter Erin, her husband David, and my two grandchildren Drake and Aspen watch with me in fascination as the 300-pound turtle labors in the darkness to complete her annual ritual on the same shore on which she was born, the park ranger tells us, 30 or 40 years ago.
No one talks; all watch in awe as the giant turtle completes her labor and begins the ponderous journey back to the wine-dark sea. The dim red light of the lamp follows her slow movements over the sand. She comes to a deep, water-filled swale, shaped by the force of the outgoing tide. The turtle is confused by the water and thinks she’s reached the sea. With a few strokes, she’s on the upward slope of the swale. Reaching the crest, she heads in a direction parallel to the coast line, and four park rangers come quietly and aim her toward the ocean.
Soon the turtle, illuminated by the soft red glow, reaches the undulating sea and with a few strokes of her flippers disappears from our sight. We all stand in silence for a few minutes, looking at the dark waves. I realize as I watch this ritual that we’re observing the most primitive intellect culminate its own annual rite, so mysterious in its fulfillment that we do not begin to understand the homing instincts and navigational capabilities of this giant of the sea, whose ancestors have been performing in this exact fashion and in this place since before the time of the dinosaurs.
No one knows where the turtle will go. Little is known of its life-habits nor how it survives among dozens of predators in its ocean world. The sea turtle, unlike the land tortoise, cannot retract its head and flippers into its shell, and, thus, is extremely vulnerable to predators. Park Service people estimate that one in 10,000 of the miniature turtles hatched in their sand-wombs will survive until adulthood. Because many of their nesting sites have been built on — for beach-front parking lots and seaside high-rises — fewer turtles are hatched each year. The loggerhead is, thus, considered a threatened species.
The New York Times reported in a page-one story (August 2, 2002) a black market in loggerhead turtle eggs in Florida. “They are sold just like drugs,” a Florida Wildlife Conservation officer reported, for $36 a dozen. Poachers and those who deal the ping-pong ball-sized turtle eggs from their car trunks or in the backrooms of bars add to the possibility of the species’ demise.
The most beautiful tribute to the loggerhead turtle in recent literature is told by American novelist Pat Conroy in Beach Music (1995). The loggerheads and their annual egg-laying ritual provides the background motif for the events of World War II, Viet Nam, and more recent national events. Conroy, who makes personal much of modern American history, concludes Beach Music with a community ceremonial release of 4,633 baby loggerheads along the North Carolina coast, where much of the novel is set. A grandmother, her son, and his daughter lead the community in the morning release of the tiny turtles. “The first turtle to reach the wet sand was five yards ahead of any of his competitors when the wave hit him and sent him somersaulting backward as it always did. But the small loggerhead recovered quickly, righted itself, and was a swimmer by the time the next wave hit. Each turtle tumbled when the first surf rushed over it, but each swam with great economy on the second wave.”
Under the stars over Jekyll Island in the dark silence of this summer’s night, as I stood with my family watching the primordial, eternal sea, the final lines of Robert Frost’s splendid poem, “Neither Far Out Nor in Deep,” came to mind, so appropriate for the moment — so significant for the times: of the “people along the sand,” Frost concluded, “They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?”
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