One In A Thousand
Massive Pacific waves crash onto the Baja shore in the night. I am miles and time zones away from work and heartache, but my obsessively racing mind refuses rest, so I listen to the waves until the first hint of daylight and then leave softly through the sliding glass door of my shared room in slouchy, wrinkled clothes, messy hair, without even bothering to brush my teeth or find a coffee.
I take the rocky path to the wide, empty beach. It feels eerie and desolate, with no visible structures, only cactus silhouettes in the early morning light. Even the eco-retreat center is hidden somehow in the desert, just meters from the beach. There is a fenced area directly in front of the path. A man inside the fence waves to me.
Me puedes ayudar?
He asks me in Spanish for help and gives me a pair of disposable latex gloves. Four Olive Ridley turtle nests have hatched in the night. We dig away the sand and remove the squirming babies, each of us uncovering two nests. We work quietly, counting each baby turtle as we lower them all into a big bucket together. I appreciate the silence and focus on the task, feel this new experience pull a few neurons from their well traveled pathways, feel anxiety slightly shift. I only ask a couple of questions. Another thousand questions pile up in my brain, occupying some mental landscape. How long has the hatchery been here? How long has he worked here? Do turtles nest all year? How long do the eggs take to hatch? I prioritize the questions in my head to ask Juan The Biologist later.
My nests have 79 and 74 babies. Juan shows me where to mark the number in his worn, spiral-bound notebook. I see that over 100 eggs had originally been placed in each nest and look over the other measurements approvingly. There was a time when I wanted to be a biologist and I imagined it would be just like this — handling baby animals and recording observations in a tattered wide-rule notebook.
We carry the five-gallon buckets to the edge of the fence and set them next to a couple others. One bucket has only a few sluggish babies, and Juan inspects each of them carefully. One baby has some shell stuck to it. Juan peels the bits of shell away; the turtle is bloody and lifeless. He tenderly replaces the turtle and covers it softly with sand. Juan hands me one of the buckets filled with yesterday’s hatchees and I carry it to the shore, climb down the steep embankment to the ocean’s edge, and lift the babies out, gently, one by one. I worry about their lethargic behavior, but Juan assures me they are only sleeping. When they feel the water, they perk up and move more quickly. But the surf is huge, and the powerful waves slam down on them, pushing them in the wrong direction, sometimes tossing them up into the air before dropping them down onto their backs. They wriggle around and continue fearlessly into the Pacific, instincts driving them ever forward.
The turtles that have just hatched will wait in buckets until the afternoon, when tour groups arrive to learn about turtles and assist the process. I wonder how healthy it is for the turtles to sit all day in the heat, bumping against the wall of the bucket, trying to find the ocean. The new hatchlings seem so much more energetic than the ones I just ‘liberated,’ as Juan calls the process in Spanish. I try not to obsess over it, assure myself that Juan The Biologist must know best.
I don’t tell him that I am basically an expert as well.
I left home at age seventeen and moved to Costa Rica to finish high school as an exchange student. I lived with a family, attended public school, and traveled on monthly excursions with other exchange students. One excursion was a week of camping and assisting biologists at a Leatherback sea turtle conservation project on a protected beach. Our job was basic: watch for the giant Leatherbacks on the beach, flag the nests, and then alert the biologists to the nest sites so they could transfer the eggs to the hatchery. The first night we saw one mama Leatherback. We watched her labor up the beach, dig a huge, smooth hole with perfect deliberation, and then lay over a hundred eggs. I was mesmerized by the magic of existence with each slimy plop of an egg, overwhelmed by this ancient ritual and the cruel beauty of life. How could this beauty and magic exist together, entangled into one long moment with her pain and suffering, her race against extinction?
Retreat afternoons are designated as free time with optional activities. The first afternoon’s activity — turtle liberation. I follow my fellow yogis to the hatchery where we join a larger group of tourists to liberate the turtles that I assisted Juan with early in the morning. Several U.S. American people from the Save-The-Turtles organization give an informative talk about Olive Ridley turtles. Juan the Biologist is not there. Halfway through the talk, a group of tourists on 4-wheelers ride up to the hatchery and peer over the fence, listen for a few minutes, snap some pictures, stuff some dollars in the donation jar, and then zip off on their quads.
The Save-The-Turtles people explain why the babies should travel together — larger groups, lower risk, safety in numbers — a seemingly reasonable explanation for keeping them piled up in buckets all day. I am skeptical, but recognize that without turtles to liberate, photograph, tag and post, these tourists wouldn’t shell out a dollar, and without donations, maybe Save-The-Turtles couldn’t save any turtles at all, couldn’t pay Juan for his nightly diligence at the hatchery.
The days are peaceful, quiet meditation, repeated mantras, slow chanting and twisted postures, set to the rhythmic pulsing of the ocean, waves continuously beating down on the shore. The only disruption to the peace are the tourists on quads, groups that cruise along the beach and desert at reckless speeds, packing down the sand, unknowingly driving over animal habitats.
My nights are restless, filled with dreams of surfing and sharks, perilous, adrenaline-filled journeys, and predators of all kinds. It’s exhausting. I wake each morning before sunrise, mind racing with the same thoughts, my heart aching with the same heaviness and pain. It all lifts gently as I spend the sunrise helping Juan with the turtles.
One morning is still dark when I walk to the beach, and I can barely see Juan working alone at the hatchery. Only one turtle has hatched. Juan tells me how he put his hand inside the nest and could feel the babies moving, awakening to life. The rest will come soon. I appreciate starting my day with these updates about new life and fresh beginnings. It’s a welcome contrast to my hours of nighttime thinking about a dying relationship and a stagnant, stressful job.
“How many turtles survive naturally?”
Una por cada mil tortugitas. One in a thousand.
“And how many survive with our help?”
It’s hard to say.
I asked Juan about the quad tours. “Isn’t this a protected beach?”
Si, es. The tour companies bribe officials so that they can drive here.
There is nothing to help with, so I walk alone on the wide beach, watch the sun rise and spread pink, peach, and orange rays over the Baja desert, coloring the cacti in the distance. I sit at the top of the steep sand bank, waves crashing below me. I want to embrace the ebb and flow as fearlessly as the tiny turtles, to dive in headfirst, gracefully into messy life. I want to understand their drive to march easily towards the pulsing future, even though their chances of survival are so slim. Do they operate by nothing more than instinctual force, pulled in by the sound of the surf, the rhythm, vibration, and salty smell? Does life just want to continue? Or do the turtles know what they are up against? Does it matter? Aren’t all our chances of survival quite slim anyway — in the end?
Young turtles are vulnerable every step of the way, tasty bites for all kinds of predators. On the beach, if their short journey from nest to surf is unassisted by well-intentioned tourists, they are food for birds-of-prey, iguanas, crabs and coyotes. Many will not make it to the sea. In the water, predators are also varied and fierce. The Save-the-Turtles people informed us that Olive Ridley turtles are the smallest sea turtle and were once considered the most abundant. They take a mere 15 years to mature into adults, while the giant Leatherbacks mature for 60 years. Sea turtles are endangered, not because of hawks and sharks, but because of earth’s worst predator. We eat their eggs, drive 4-wheelers over their nests, and fill their ocean home with plastic. In Mexico, in the 1960s, there was an era of mass exploitation, depleting the population by millions, and in one generation, the population declined by over thirty percent.
Tourists on 4-wheelers drive along the protected beach all day, packing down the sand. Biologists and volunteers patrol the beach at night, dig up eggs and move them to the fenced area where they are safe from quads and poachers. The eggs hatch at night and then are held for the day in a bucket to be released before sunset, a ‘liberation’ production. People from the quad tours stop and watch, leave donations, and then cruise on. The irony is nauseating. We must protect the turtles from ourselves, and because we have been so destructive, we also intervene with the natural process, offer them an artificial headstart to protect them from their natural predators too. We try to bring balance back to the imbalance we have created, but the scale must tip somewhere else. What about the crabs and hawks that are supposed to eat baby turtles? How do we measure the unintended consequences of our well-intentioned actions?
According to Juan, the Olive Ridleys will migrate all over the world, cross the pacific, travel to Indonesia and Tahiti, and then they will return here, to this exact spot to lay their own eggs. Why do they travel so far? What do they see along the journey?
They lay eggs with up to 1000 other female turtles, a mass synchronized nesting. How and why do they return to the same beach and how do they coordinate with their sister nesters? Why do they come full circle? Must we all come full circle in our lives? And if so, how many times? How many circles?
I’m not sure that Juan the Biologist has answers to all my questions, but I have a feeling, if I gave him a chance, he would at least entertain them.
I spend a lot of time each morning and afternoon sitting at the top of the steep drop above the surf, staring out at the ocean, allowing the peace and calm of the beach to seep into me, my body and spirit, my cells, my heart, enjoying the familiar feeling of my own smallness at the edge of the giant Pacific.
Seventeen years earlier, on one of those late Costa Rican nights, nearly morning, after having walked the beach for hours, I had sat at the edge of the mighty Pacific, and looking out, felt dizzy with my own smallness. I felt drunk on beauty and giddy from experience. The earth seemed to spin faster while in the same moment, time slowed and stretched. I dug my hands into the sand, gripping, grasping for something firm, as if I would spin right off this big beautiful world if I didn’t hold on tight. I felt excitement about life and what was to come, and I remember thinking, I still have so much to do, so much to learn, so much to see. The future sparkled in front of me.
In the afternoon, Juan walks up to my spot on the sand bank holding a single baby turtle — a gift, an offering for a private liberation, a one in a thousand chance. I accept the turtle and a glove, hop down over the steep sand bank, and set the little one towards the water all alone. I try not to think about her slim chance of returning to this beach to lay eggs, the statistics stacked against her. I again become overwhelmed by the cruel beauty of existence and some tears liberate themselves from my eyes as I watch her enter the giant ocean.
Juan quietly watches my moment with my turtle, my one in a thousand, his presence as gentle as when he handles the hatchlings. He helps me climb back up the sand cliff and we sit together.
“Why do they say it’s better to release in groups? Are they really safer in numbers? When they hatch without our help, they don’t wait for each other, right?”
No, no esperan. Entran el mar cuando salen del nido. They don’t wait for each other.
“How long can they wait after they hatch to go to the water?”
“Is it better for them to go straight to the water?”
They save the babies to release when it is convenient for tourists, not because it’s safer for them. Juan knows where my questions are headed. He tells me a story about a time that he went to a wedding in Oaxaca and turtle eggs were served. He ate one. Only one.
“Did you tell them about your job?”
Ya sabian. Pero….es tradición. It’s a tradition.
I listen to his confession and understand more easily than I can understand the complexities of his job. This lesson is another gift from Juan. We are all just doing the best we can.
Later that day, I return to my spot on the sand bank and not long after, Juan rides up on his 4-wheeler with another gift for me, a turquoise “Save The Turtles” t-shirt, drenched in cologne.
Espero que te quede. Fue la última.
It was the last size small and it had a hole, but he went home on his break and sewed it closed. I accept and he asks me for a picture. I remember how I used to be attractive to men, perhaps, still am. I agree to the selfie, and then Juan gives me half a piece of wide-rule notebook paper with his email and Facebook name. I know I won’t contact him.
I thank Juan several times for all the gifts and watch him ride off to sit on the otherwise deserted beach, close enough that I could join him, far enough to not be too awkward. I am grateful for his kindness and gifts, for his knowledge and patience with my continual questions about turtles, for his consistent, but gentle attention, together with his respect for my solitude and space. I don’t join him, but sit alone with my gratitude, tasting along with it a hint of the cruelty of the universe. What makes us attracted to people if not courtship rituals such as these?
A friend joins me on the beach for our last sunrise of the retreat and we walk past the turtle sanctuary where Juan The Biologist is busy working alone. We don’t stop. I don’t get my final daily update, don’t say goodbye. I feel the heaviness of the unfairness of the universe on one side and the lightness of its perfection on the other. Somehow, at that moment, the scale feels balanced.
Embrace the paradox. Don’t fear love. The universe will give you a sign when it’s your time to plunge in. Let the moon guide you. Be like the baby turtles. Head courageously in the right direction and don’t look back. Accept the ebb and go with the flow. Ride the tide where it will take you. Let it bring you full circle. Come full circle again and again if you must. How ever many times it takes. There is still so much to do, to see, to learn. The future still has some sparkle. Dig your hands into the sand. Dig in and hold on tight so you don’t spin right off this big beautiful world.