By: Kathleen Thompson
The sea turtle floats, resting. She has arrived at the beach where she was hatched. She is home. Here on this same sand she once scurried to make her way into the water before the hungry sea gulls gobbled her up. Here on these sea-strewn dunes she lost many of her siblings. Now she’s back. She floats, hardly aware of another pair of turtles, mating, nearby. She will be safe here on this dark beach. Tonight is her night.
It’s late afternoon at the end of June. I’m visiting with a friend who lives at Melbourne Beach on a sea turtle preserve in Florida, a strip along the Atlantic. I watch the turtle bobbing in the waves, wondering how far she has come. She looks like a loggerhead, aptly named for her head size, but I won’t know until I see the width of her tracks. Her life’s journey has taken her as a hatchling into the North Atlantic gyre, a warm stream with plenty of crustaceans and mollusks, a snap for her strong jaws. Typically, she will weigh about two hundred-fifty pounds. Mating in the water is a tricky art: the male is equipped with claws at his front flippers which allow him to clutch onto the back of a female by gripping the edges of her solid carapace as he deposits his fluid inside her.
I see a black blob at the edge of the water beginning to inch its way onto the sand. While the males look for another mate in the water, many females will lumber across the sand, weary from their long journey and heavy with hundreds of eggs. I watch for an hour or so and this turtle is only about a third of the distance across the sand. I go inside, ready for bed. My friend often stays up during turtle season to watch this ancient rite of the females: leaving the water, walking across the dunes, laying the eggs, and then returning to the sea. For once, even though I’m always in bed by nine, I determine to be vigilant. Residents are required to keep the east side of the house dark at night during turtle season. We open the vertical blinds and slide through a small opening in the sliding glass door. The turtle has made it to the high dunes which are unnaturally soft, rebuilt after the hurricane season of two years ago when both Frances and Jean took their separate tolls. We can see the scratch marks where the sea turtle tried to climb, but failed.
Here she will nest. She digs with some urgency with her large front flippers. She throws sand in a circle of four or five feet. Somehow she is able to fashion a very deep hole, deep enough to hold two hundred or so eggs, and this hole is as perfectly round as if it were dug with a machine and a template. It is literally a bucket in the sand. Her dig takes about an hour. Once she’s satisfied that the nest is right, she shifts her weight some and stretches her neck outward (still facing west toward the dune) and settles down into something of a trance or brown study. At this point my friend feels it would be safe to use a flashlight covered by a red paper cup (emulating the light used by the turtle patrol) so that I might witness the production more clearly. She focuses the small light on a long, flabby penis-like aperture from which the eggs have already started dropping. Slippery with fluid from the male, they drop in twos and threes. The eggs are the size and shape of ping-pong balls, but the shell is not rigid like a bird’s or hen’s egg. A rigid egg would not withstand the drop into the bucket/nest—more sleight of hand. Once the laying starts, it is eggs, eggs, eggs for an hour or so. I’m exhausted from the standing and watching, but I have become a voyeur. The faint swooshing of the ocean waves, with only the light of a full moon and stars as far as I can see, and right before me, this enormous air-breathing ocean-dwelling reptile involved in the act of creation that has been repeated for more than 150 million years. I’m in. This is high drama, and I can’t stop watching.
Her two back flippers rise ever so slightly each time eggs are about to drop. As two or three eggs slide out, the flippers settle back onto the sand. I remember the pain of the contractions I had before giving birth and wonder if this is painful for her. Surely, some kind of muscle movement accompanies each egg drop. When the eggs are piled to the rim of the nest, the laying is finished. She begins the turn slowly, shifting her weight in what seems to be a body sigh. Nothing is speedy about the process for the observer, but one senses some bit of desperation on her part to get that nest covered—before the sun rises, before the early morning sea gulls and egrets start scouring the beach for breakfast. She flips sand frantically for what seems to be another hour or so, and then she turns east again, ready to make that long sand walk back into the sea. She is lighter now, and although this return trip will not be fast, it is almost crazed compared to the trudging steps she took to reach this natal dune.
It’s the last week in September. Like the sea turtle I’ve come back. My friend, her fiancé, and his grandson pick me up at the airport in Orlando. The rest of my family will join me for the weekend wedding. As we cross the bridge over Indian River, a rainbow lies ahead of us. Any minute, it seems, we will drive right under it. A good omen, I think, for two who met in a grief group and will be married on their cottage patio facing the Atlantic. They will stand on a deck rebuilt after the hurricanes. The sturdy sea grape vines scalded by raging waters are green again; the dunes, frothy with sea oats and dune hedge and a frilly green which I can’t name. And scattered here and there will be willowy, yellow sea daisies, and orangish-brown heads of Indian blanket.
The sun’s rising this morning was hampered by black clouds frothed up. An hour later the sun has bested the clouds and begun its circular march. Its glistening gold path looks sturdy enough to stand upon. Later today, I’ll decorate the deck with yards and yards of pale yellow tulle and yellow Gerber daisies. I’ve strained to see any late loggerhead hatchlings up and down the beach. My friend says that most of the nests are emptied by now. The eggs hatch in about sixty days. My friend has watched many baby turtles tumble up and out of the nests of sand. As their mothers did before them, those who survived waddled as fast as they could toward the relative safety of the water. They swim toward that warm ocean stream to live until they reach the mating age in fifteen to thirty years. Then they will return to this very beach to mate and lay their eggs. Never mind the thousands of beaches that line the eastern shores of this continent, they will know home when they find it. Some scientists say it is the earth’s magnetic force that guides them to the general area, and visual clues on the shoreline that tip them off to the exact spot. Whatever the reason for this migratory pattern, magic gives way to miracle, inexplicable, real.
Kathleen Thompson holds a B.S. from the University of Alabama and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in fiction/poetry. A former teacher of high school English, she has an online editing business, wordforwordforword.com. An avowed genre slut, she has published three books of poetry: Searching for Ambergris, 2002, Pudding House Publications; The Nights, The Days, winner of the 2008 Negative Capability Press Chapbook Series Award; and The Shortest Distance, 2009, nominated for the National Book Award by Coosa River Books. She also has poems forthcoming in PMS, poemmemoirstory, and in 2nd & Church. Her prose in manuscript includes two novels and a truckload of short stories and essays. Excalibur Press nominated her short story, “Looking for the Lord,” for a Pushcart Prize. Some days, when she is not revising fiction, her hair is afire writing a memoir, sparked by a recent passion for blogging, an old passion for the personal essay, and a Spalding University CNF workshop in Paris, 2012