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Carl Safina
fresh inspiration for ocean conservation
a serial field journal (March 22nd - April 5th, 2004)
Stranded Angels
Monday, Apr 5, 2004 (01:44 PM)

Sandy had mentioned that despite her hours aloft she'd never watched a turtle laying eggs. And so we are on the ground. Our destination is the beach camp at Barra de la Cruz. Laura comments, "I like Mexiquillo very much, but it is dangerous."

It's a warm soft night and the waves sound delicious. There's a faint trill of insects and the smell of vegetation and the sea. It's a wide flat beach of powdery sand and gleaming breakers. Laura's colleagues greet us warmly -- and say there's a leatherback down the beach.

We hop onto an ATV with Laura driving, and streak along in the night wind, running the harder wet-packed sand near the hissing waves, following the shore's contours about a mile. This beach impresses as a very remote place. I see no human-made light, not up or down the beach, nor back into the shadowed hills.

The turtle is up on dry sand, already well into her body pit. I've seen these turtles on beaches before, and Sandy is suitably awed, repeating, "I don't believe it. I don't believe it."

Sandy with the leatherback

Sandy looks and looks at the monster in our midst, then says, "I didn't expect her to appear so... real."

I say, "She's a little surreal."

When she manages to collect herself a bit, Sandy says, "She looks like a Stegosaurus -- or some kind of -saurus." Inspecting more closely, she observes, "I didn't understand that the ridges on her back were so pronounced."

Not far away, another gleaming female is emerging from the ocean. Sandy says, "Think of how astonishing it must be. For all the time it has been growing, it has wandered a world in weightless motion. And yet after years in this deep, moving world, it drives itself to shore. And in an instant this weightless being suddenly weighs half a ton. What in the world is she experiencing?"

The great leatherback before us has finished clearing the site and digging the "body pit" and is settled down into the more humid sand, into which she is now drilling a perfectly cylindrical egg chamber. She does this with her rear flippers, her work perfect and unseen, the work of a blind watchmaker.

She seems on autopilot, as though channeling directions from a higher source. We seem to be witnessing sheer instinct. Something in her is directing bone and muscle movement and her exacting fine-motor manipulations. And thus she digs the precious chamber she was born to dig, her rear flippers alternating, her whole posterior shifting for each perfect scoop.

And in equal measures absurd and yet appropriate, I suddenly hear Aretha Franklin in my head, singing,

"Rock steady. Rock steady, baby.
Let's call this song exactly what it is (what it is, what it is).
Just move your hips with a feeling from side to side.
Dig yourself a body pit and go for a ride --
While you're moving rock steady. Rock steady, baby..."

Here on a wild night beach with a booming surf for a rhythm section and a nesting dinosaur from the deepest reaches of the planet, the greatest mystery is how we've gotten here all together.

Laura says that if we don't take her eggs to the hatchery, poachers will get them. I ask, "What poachers?" As far as I can tell, there is no one else here.

Laura laughs. "They are here. Already, they know she is here digging. Just before I went to get you, a man was here with a bucket for her eggs. He said to us, 'OK, you found her first.' There is a village, not far. And a path, there." She gestures to a cleft in the nearby dune that leads into the vegetative shadows. "They are like ghosts. You don't see them. But they are here. Always here."

And so one of the turtle crew produces a large plastic bag and collects her eggs as they fall, for deliverance to the hatchery.

The turtle has no idea. When she has finished her task she covers her empty egg chamber, suspecting nothing. It's just another of the acts of faith that link the chain of her long life. And in her next act of faith she chugs heavily down the beach, into the waves. The moon-pulled surf is running hard and high. The first wave that hits her is big enough to float her off her belly, and she begins swimming. And in the next wave she is gone.

Laura drops Sandy and I off at 3:18 a.m. so we can spread our blankets on the beach and dream of giant turtles. Laura herself zooms back into the night. She knows there will be more eggs, more leatherbacks to save.

Note to readers: this is Carl Safina's final entry for POV's Borders. We hope you'll check out his previous entries, below, and browse through the other guest pages on Border Talk. Thanks for stopping by.

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Leatherbacks and Lords
Friday, Apr 2, 2004 (10:12 AM)

Today we'll be flying the densest leatherback nesting areas in the country, including the famed 11-mile beach called Mexiquillo. Fifteen years ago, Mexiquillo had about 5,000 nests. Last year, only three or four females laid just 19 nests...

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Mazatlán to Manzanillo
Wednesday, Mar 31, 2004 (12:04 PM)

Yesterday we flew a portion of Mexico's west coast, scanning a couple hundred miles of beach but finding not one leatherback turtle nest. This morning the Pacific Ocean appears tranquilo and we're in the air by mid-morning. I am again ready to key the position of any leatherback nest into our Global Positioning System unit, and I'm hoping for a little more leatherback turtle action...

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Tracks Among Tracks
Monday, Mar 29, 2004 (11:43 AM)

Laura Sarti uses a bandana to reign in her bushy shock of wooly hair. Raised in Mexico City, she first whiffed her love of nature at the impressionable age of nineteen. During a course in field biology Laura made an...

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Across a Desert Sea
Friday, Mar 26, 2004 (12:51 PM)

Sandy and I are at the Tucson airport, where jets are roaring into the morning and the desert's brown ridges ring the sky in weightless silence. Today we will fly to La Paz, Mexico, near the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. There we will meet Laura Sarti, the Mexican scientist conducting this aerial census of leatherback sea turtle nests...

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Are You Experienced?
Wednesday, Mar 24, 2004 (11:07 AM)

You don't "see" your first leatherback turtle, you experience it. And if you're going to experience it, I advise haste...

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Dinosaur Tracking
Monday, Mar 22, 2004 (05:25 PM)

Everything about Sandy Lanham is reassuring. And now's a good time for reassurance, because during the next week and a half we'll be flying thousands of miles over ocean and wild dune in her little single-engine four-seater Cessna 182 — a plane that's 47 years old...

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Past Entries
03/22 Dinosaur Tracking
03/24 Are You Experienced?
03/26 Across a Desert Sea
03/29 Tracks Among Tracks
03/31 Mazatlán to Manzanillo
04/02 Leatherbacks and Lords
04/05 Stranded Angels