Summer of the Sea Turtles

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
January/February 2007

William Gwaltney

The sun is setting over the ocean as I walk out onto the porch. Reflecting the last rays of the sun, the ocean sparkles a bright, brilliant orange. I leave my beach house and walk out onto the sand, which feels cool and slightly damp beneath my bare feet. I glance up at the beautiful soft sky, reminiscent of pink lemonade, which seems to stretch out in every direction. A faint breeze sweeps in off the ocean. It ruffles my hair and tickles my face. It’s the perfect night for a walk.

As I stroll down the beach, I see thousands of footprints in the sand, left over from midday beachgoers. I have never understood why everyone flocks to the beach during the daytime, when the sky is so bright that it hurts your eyes and the hot sand burns the bottoms of your feet… when the beach is crowded, noisy and stuffy I have always found the beach to be unfriendly and unwelcoming during the day. But in the evening, the beach is soothing and peaceful. In the evening, the beach is mine. I share it only with the pelicans and seagulls, who play tag on the gentle currents of evening wind.

The water remains warm even though the sun has almost set and the air is cooler. I walk close to the water’s edge, letting the frothy waves wash over my feet. I am so lost in my thoughts, that at first I do not see the large brown mass lumbering out of the water just ahead. When I do glance up and see it, I quickly jump back in surprise. It takes a moment for me to realize that it is a turtle, a sea turtle, crawling clumsily out of water and onto land. I wonder why it would leave the water, where it moves so gracefully, for dry land where it must struggle to take every step. It drags itself determinedly across the beach, intent on some important mission all its own. I think of whales and how they sometimes beach themselves, and wonder if this turtle has a similar task in mind. I sit down on the sand to watch.

Summer of the Sea Turtles watching a turtle

When I do glance up and see it, I quickly jump back in surprise

Once the turtle has chosen just the right spot, it turns around 36o degrees to make an impression in the sand. Then it begins to dig a small hole with its back feet, sending sand flying everywhere. Once it is done it seems to settle down into the hole and lies still. It happens so effortlessly that I miss the arrival of the first few eggs. By the time I realize that this turtle is nesting, there is already a small pile of ping-pong-sized, leathery white eggs on the sand. The turtle continues to lay eggs for several hours. Without thinking, I begin to count. One, two, three… I stop at 1oo, but the turtle does not. She lays a few dozen more eggs before she is finished. When she is done she fills her nest in with sand and then, without warning, she suddenly drops to the ground. Oomph! She does this several more times. By the third time she drops, I realize that she is using her hard smooth underbelly to pack down the sand over her eggs. Once she finishes this, she flings sand all over the nest and the surrounding beach. Apparently, this is to confuse unwanted visitors about the location of her nest. Once she is satisfied, she begins her long slow crawl back to the ocean. Of course, as she crawls, she leaves a very distinctive track which will lead others directly to her nest no matter how hard she tries to hide it. I decide to help her. Looking around, I choose landmarks that will enable me to find this spot again. Then, using the old sweatshirt I have tied around my waist, I sweep her tracks from the sand. Once I am finished, I check to make sure her nest is entirely hidden. Then I walk home along the beach, my mind still full of what I have just witnessed.

Even though I was up half the night and am more tired than I could ever have imagined, I get up the next morning before my father leaves for work. He and my mom are surprised to see me, as I usually sleep in until at least nine o’clock in the summer. I eat a bowl of cereal with my parents and my dad asks, “What are you going to do today, Sport?”

“I’m thinking of going to the beach,” I tell him.

“What?” asks my dad. “I thought you hated the beach during the day.”

I tell him that I am having second thoughts about that, and ask my mother if she will pack me a lunch. She looks surprised, but agrees to do it.

I have a plan. I gather two beach towels, a picnic basket, a water bottle, and my sunglasses. I put on my swimming trunks. The picnic basket is the old-fashioned kind. It is a huge wicker affair that will hold all the rest of my gear. I grab my lunch and the sunscreen my mother insists on, then head out the door, letting it slam shut behind me. I stop at the garage on my way out and look up on the shelves lining the back wall. I see an old, faded box, strewn with large cobwebs and covered by thick dust. The writing on the side of the box says “Tyler’s Toys.” I open the box. Inside are things I haven’t seen in ages… a ball, a frisbee, an old pull toy, and two ancient stuffed animals named Fluffy and Sticky who slept with me every night until I was seven. Underneath all this, I find what I am looking for… a plastic pail and shovel which were once a cheerful red, now bleached a putrid pink by many summers spent in the sun. I take those out and, after a little thought, add the ball to my pile of stuff as well.

I head out onto the sand and, even though it is early, several people have already staked out their part of the beach. I hurry to the area where I think the sea turtle nest is. After careful consideration of my landmarks, I am sure I have found the exact spot. I take one of the beach towels and drape it over the nest. It is an oversized one so it is big enough to cover the entire area. On the towel, I set my picnic basket, the ball, the pail and shovel. Then, for a finishing touch, I take the sandwich out of my lunch, take a couple of bites, and lay it down on top of the picnic basket. Now it looks as if someone has been here just recently and will be back at any moment. I spread my own towel close by and put on my sunglasses. I lie back and breathe evenly, pretending to be asleep, but really I am keeping a watchful eye on the nest. It is a long, hot, exhausting day. At about five o’clock, thankfully, the tourists start to leave. It is dinner time and most of them are hungry I am hungry too, but I feel the urge to stay with the nest a bit longer. I think of all the little baby turtles growing inside and I feel scared for them. I stay until the sun sinks behind the waves, and the last of the light disappears from the sky I head home tired, sunburned, and weary, but happy that I have done this little thing to keep my turtles safe.

I am determined to watch over the nest every day. On the second day, a woman appears. She has dark brown hair the color of coffee, and blue-green eyes the color of the sea. She’s tall and tan and fit. She lays her blanket close to mine. I look up to find her watching me, a puzzled look on her face. I try to ignore her, but she shows up the next day and the one after, and the one after that. She seems to be spending more and more time studying me and the empty towel covering the nest. I am convinced that she wants to put her blanket there. I cannot let that happen.

The next morning I am on the beach even earlier. It’s so early that no tourists are out yet. I must make sure that I get the exact same spot. My turtles’ lives depend on it. As I walk down the beach, I see something. I am already too late. A dog is digging up the nest. I grab a piece of driftwood and run towards him, swinging my newfound weapon wildly The dog looks up at me as I run. He has egg yolk dripping from his jaws. I charge at him and swing my piece of driftwood. I miss the dog, but connect with the ground right next to him. A cloud of sand fills the air. The dog darts a short distance away, turns, and puts his head down on his front paws. He barks. The poor deluded beast thinks this is a game. My rage knows no bounds. I continue to run after him, trying to hit him, but the dog is too fast. I miss again and again as he runs in front of me up the beach. I feel a compelling urge to chase the dog and hurt him for committing this horrible crime. As I run after him yet again, a woman walks over the dunes and onto the beach. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing to my dog?” she yells.

Once again rage takes the place of reason. I am furious at her for allowing this to happen. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to let your dog run loose on the beach?” I scream. My face is red and my voice is angry “There are leash laws in this town! Get your stupid mutt out of here!”

“Leash laws or not,” she says, “you have no right to hurt my dog.”

“If that dog comes back here,” I threaten, “I’ll do more than just hurt him!”

The look on her face changes then, from defiance to something like fear. I realize that she is wondering if I am crazy. She snaps a leash on her dog and, looking over her shoulder, she hurries down the beach. As she runs away, I feel ashamed. I suddenly realize that she is really just like me… trying to protect an animal she loves.

Summer of the Sea Turtles sun bathing

“I have got to know what’s going on,” she laughs, “because I am going crazy trying to figure it out!”

I drop the piece of driftwood and run to the nest. Luckily the dog has not uncovered very much of it. I see the eggshells from only two broken eggs. If the dog ate more, he ate them whole. I cover the nest with sand and pat it down gently I wonder if the rest of the eggs were somehow traumatized by the dog’s digging. I have to make sure that this never happens again.

That afternoon I am sitting on my towel, thinking about ways to keep the turtles safe. Suddenly, the woman who has been watching me all week approaches. “Hi,” she says, “My name is Martha. What’s yours?” I tell her that I am Tyler. What I really want to tell her is to go away and leave me alone. I am wondering why she is annoying me when there is an entire beach full of other people she could talk to.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” she asks, pointing to the beach towel that is covering the nest.

“Not there,” I tell her. “That’s someone else’s stuff. Sit here.” I move over to offer her room on my towel.

“Oh come on,” she says smiling, “I have watched you every day this week. You come every morning and lay that blanket down. You put that picnic basket on it. You put out toys. You open your lunch, take two bites out of your sandwich, and then leave it on the picnic basket. That isn’t ‘someone else’s stuff’ It’s some kind of elaborate prop. I have got to know what’s going on,” she laughs, “because I am going crazy trying to figure it out!”

She looks really nice when she laughs. So I tell her about the nest, and my plan to protect the turtles. She acts interested and asks a lot of questions. Once I have finished, she tells me, “Well that’s some job you’ve been doing, Tyler. It just so happens that I’m a scientist who studies sea turtles. I’m on vacation this week, and I’m here to enjoy the beach, not to work. Still, every day that I have come to the beach, I’ve come early to look for tracks. I never saw any.”

“That’s because I covered them up,” I tell her. She seems surprised.

“This means a lot to you, doesn’t it?” she asks.

“It sure does,” I tell her, “so please… don’t tell anyone else.”

“But I think I can help you,” she says. “There’s a local ‘Turtle Watch’ composed of other people who love the turtles as much as you do. I’m going to call them. They can help you protect the nest.”

Things over the next few days get a lot more exciting. People come and put wire mesh over the nest. They bury the edges deep so that no dogs can dig it up. They ask me for the exact date that the eggs were laid so that they can come back right before the estimated hatch date and remove the wire. Then they mark the edges of the nest with poles and string orange tape between them. They post a sign that says that this is an endangered sea turtle nest and that there will be severe penalties for anyone who disturbs it. Then they make my day.

“We’re sorry,” they tell me, “but we don’t have enough volunteers to keep someone on this beach. There are other beaches full of nests, and it takes all the people we have to check on those. So we’re going to need you to keep doing what you’ve been doing. You’ll need to keep a sharp eye out and tell us if there’s a problem with anyone bothering the nest.

Will that be a problem?” they ask. Will that be a problem? “Not at all,” I tell them. I am thrilled. I spend the rest of the summer on the beach. I get books about sea turtles at the library and read them as I keep a hawk’s eye on the nest. People see the sign and stop to ask me about the turtles. I tell them all that I have learned and make sure that they are told what they can do to help. Things like keeping their dogs on leashes and turning out their outside lights if they live along the beach. Baby sea turtles crawl towards the brightest horizon after hatching. Normally, the brightest horizon is over the ocean, but artificial lights from houses and condos can confuse the baby turtles, making them go the wrong way. Then they run the risk of getting lost and starving to death, or dying of dehydration, or crossing roads and getting hit by cars. After I explain this to her, one tourist goes back to her hotel and even manages to get the hotel owners to turn off their outside lights.

By the time the eggs are almost ready to hatch, dozens of beachgoers are part of a huge fan club dedicated entirely to the turtles. Every day they come to the beach and look at the nest. They circulate petitions throughout the neighborhood, asking the city council to pass a resolution stating that all outside lights, even streetlights, must be turned off during turtle season. I feared that these people would only disturb the nest and its occupants, but instead they are just as interested in protecting it as I am.

Summer of the Sea Turtles holding turtle

Fifty-seven days after the eggs were laid, the Turtle Watch people come back and remove the wire. Fifty-nine days after the eggs were laid, the turtles hatch. We come back at dusk to find that they have broken out of the nest and are now scuttling frantically towards the ocean. A little girl walks over and picks up one of the turtles, intent on carrying it to the water’s edge. “No!” I yell. “Put him down!”

She does as I ask, but says sadly, “He was having such a hard time getting to the ocean. I only wanted to help.”

“If you don’t let it crawl by itself,” I tell her, “it won’t imprint on its natal beach. If it’s a girl,” I continue, “she’ll never find her way back here to lay her eggs.” Just then, another turtle starts to crawl inland, away from the sea. I show the little girl how to bend down and gently shepherd it in the right direction.

When the last turtle is in the ocean, we all stand and watch the babies floating away on the gentle currents carrying them out to sea. I feel sad that they are leaving, yet happy that I have helped them to get this far. Perhaps in twenty years, when they are adults, some of these very same turtles will return to nest on this beach. If they come, I’ll be waiting.

Summer of the Sea Turtles William Gwaltney

William Gwaltney, 11
Englewood, Colorado

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