Twenty-five years ago this week I packed my bags for early morning travel home from Cancun, then left my hotel room to join friends for one last stroll along the beach. It was a beautiful night; the storm clouds that had hung around most of the week were receding and for the first time we saw the stars. A warm wind was blowing, and the surf was crashing.
We were all environmental educators of one sort or another, wrapping up another annual conference. Within hours we would be flying to our homes and lives in various parts of the continent, but we still held out hope that on our last night we might finally witness one of the most awe-inspiring events in nature: the hatching of endangered baby sea turtles.
The nests were about a quarter of a mile away, next to another major hotel. Such a cruel irony that this endangered species nested on one of the world’s busiest beaches, but then humans, like sea turtles, are drawn to water and sand.
We had gone to the nests every night, and didn’t really expect different results this time around, but it gave to our walk another purpose beyond the obvious one of preparing to say goodbye.
horror, then determination
As we approached the nesting ground, something seemed wrong. From a distance we saw a dark circle that appeared to be a hole. We hurried, and were horrified to discover that one of the nests had been dug up. The hole went straight down about three feet. And there, at the bottom, were three baby sea turtles, helplessly clawing at the vertical walls of the hole, trying to get out. I picked up one of them, and two friends picked up the others, and we released them. Soon they were in the sea.
At that point we decided to sit by another nest and wait for a while. It wasn’t long. Within two minutes, a wriggling flipper broke through the surface of the sand. The nest was hatching! We were so excited to witness it–but our excitement soon turned to horror. The baby turtles were confused. Instead of crawling toward the crashing surf, they headed in the other direction toward the hotel just beyond their nest. The light shining from the hotel onto the beach confused them; their instincts told them it was the moon, and that they must go toward it.
Nearby, in the shadows, stood two yellow-crowned night herons. To them that hotel light was a restaurant sign, and turtle was on the menu.
Now, I don’t have anything against yellow-crowned night herons, and I realize they have to eat, too, but they did seem to have an unfair advantage. We decided that the herons were not going to eat on our watch. So, over the next couple of hours, we waited for the turtles to hatch, picked them up, and set them down by the sea. The herons sulked in the shadows.
hope for baby sea turtles
During the twenty-five years that have passed since that night, the tourism industry began to discover that the turtles were another selling point, and hotels in the Cancun area and elsewhere–perhaps even the very one whose beach we walked on that night–began their own form of catch-and-release. They would dig up a nest soon after the eggs were laid, keep the eggs sequestered until hatching, and then hold the babies in captivity until enough tourists signed up for the event of releasing them to the ocean. Unfortunately, sea turtle babies need to get to the ocean promptly, or they become too weak to survive. Many died. I was happy to learn that in 2013 Mexico banned this practice, as well as the shining of hotel lights onto beaches during nesting time.
For me, personally, that night of the turtles was one of the highlights of my life. I got to hold in the palm of my hand dozens of one of the planet’s most amazing creatures, and help ensure that at least their first couple of minutes of life got off to a safe start. It was a night of mystery and wonder and connectedness, and watching these endangered baby sea turtles trudge into the breaking surf was a moment that epitomizes hope. Twenty-five years ago. And it still gives me shivers.
Photo by Darwis Alwan, via Pexels.
This post emphasizes mystery, wonder and hope, associated with the teal portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.