Sharing "Hatch Day" with a Galapagos Sea Turtle
May 5, 2013 Galapagos Islands, Ecuador --It's 8:15 a.m. on the first day of my birthday trip to the Galapagos, and I'm a bit out of sorts. This is my first time visiting the equator, and I can already tell I'm not an equatorial type of person. Being of Irish descent doesn't help either: I'm even more paranoid than usual about sunblock. 11 years ago my mother died of melanoma on my birthday, so skin cancer is on my mind. Birthdays seem like solemn affairs since that happened, even in the Galapagos.
I smear on some more SPF 70 sunblock, peer nervously at the relentlessly glowing yellow orb in the sky, and adjust my hat. Though I hate to admit it, I'm not feeling very adventurous.
There's no denying it though: The Galapagos has a surreal beauty of its own. An hour ago we landed our Zodiac inflatable boat on a pristine white sand beach. The sea is a gorgeous shade of shimmering blue that hovers between aqua and sea glass. After greeting a tribe of friendly sea lions with my companions, I've taken a solitary walk a half mile down the shore, exploring my new environment.
Flying into Quito on my birthday three nights earlier, the sky was filled with extravagant celestial fireworks: yellow, pink, orange, green, and purple bolts of lightning, illuminated the clouds. I'd never seen anything like it. I wondered if that kind of storm was an exotic occurrence that could only happen near the equator. "Big changes are coming," seemed to be the message.
My toes touch the sand for the first time, I think, in years. Since... when? Hawaii? Cape Cod? My feet at least are feeling happy and at home. I sit on a dune and examine an inquisitive bird who inspects me right back. He looks pleasant enough but not especially exotic. He could fit right into my backyard in Seattle. "I could use a blue-footed booby right about now," I think.
Suddenly there is movement in the sand. The bird and I aren’t alone. What is that? A lizard? I stand up to look.
It is the smallest, most perfect turtle I've ever seen -- a Pacific Green hatchling, not much bigger than a sand dollar. He struggles towards the sea, all energy and bounce, waving miniature fins... crawling over sand piles. I am suddenly completely present, engaged, and alert. I know my role in this drama -- to guard this tiny brave pilgrim from the roving, newly menacing sea birds circling overhead on his hero's journey toward the ocean. "No worries, little guy!" I say out loud. "I'm all over this! Take your time."
I later learn that seeing a hatchling sea turtle heading to the ocean in the daytime is extremely rare. Baby sea turtles usually travel over beaches at night, in groups, for safety from predators."If you hadn’t been there protecting him, I'm sure your turtle would have been a snack for a bird," sea turtle expert Dr. Bryan Wallace tells me. "It’'s unusual for a hatchling to be out in the daytime by itself. Your turtle is probably a straggler. His mother would have laid about 100 eggs two months prior, 2 to 4 feet below the surface of the sand. Of those 100 eggs, 60 to 80 probably hatched."
How does my turtle know where to go? Hatchlings are guided by multiple cues: sight, sound, smell, and a sense of heading downhill. At night, my turtle would have headed for the brightest point on the horizon which is usually the ocean. (That's why artificial light on beaches from overdevelopment can be lethal to sea turtles.) I learn all these turtle facts later, once I'm home in Seattle. Right now, I'm just trying to keep up with my hatchling's progress. I don't want to lose him in a sea of sand!
I never considered life from the perspective of a baby Pacific Green sea turtle before. Now, that perspective is my new reality. I pull out my camera and start documenting my turtle's first trip. Up and down, over dunes faster and faster. The ocean is getting nearer. I admire his pluck. He acts like he just woke up late and discovered everyone else had left -- but he is on his way. A few times he stumbles but rights himself. He is covered in sand, shakes himself and continues undeterred. His tiny legs and perfectly architected black shell fascinate me. What a privilege it is to be alone with a newly hatched Galapagos sea turtle, walking together to his new home.
And suddenly it hits me: The turtle could have been born on my birthday (or in his case, I guess it would be "Hatch Day")! "I bet those fireworks in the sky were for you and your friends!" I tell him, remembering the Crayola-colored lightning over Quito two nights ago.
The wave recedes and he prepares to leave dry land. He spreads his legs wide ready to ride the next big wave, and then unexpectedly he looks toward me. For a brief moment I am gazing into the turtle's tiny ink-black eyes. "Be safe!" I tell him. I try to recall what the ship's naturalist said about turtle hatchlings yesterday. "Go hide someplace. Eat a lot and only come out when you are big. One day, you'll be 600 pounds! Maybe then we'll meet again. I'll be wearing a snorkel!" I feel like an anxious parent sending my kid off for the first day at school.
The wave comes back and takes my new turtle friend. He becomes a tiny vulnerable speck on the water -- paddling as fast as he can, off on his new 60-year journey of survival in a vast and perilous watery world. He might stay in the Galapagos, or journey as far as Central America or Peru. If my turtle's a female, she'll be back to this very beach in 20 or 30 years to lay her eggs.
It's just me left behind on the beach now, and it suddenly seems very empty. But, my heart is lighter. I'm not worried about sunscreen anymore, and I lost my hat somewhere along the way. My birthday has new meaning: It isn't just about the past. It's about a new life, a Galapagos sea turtle that I helped shepherd into the world.
I hope he's off to a good start.
--Images by Elisabeth Keating
If you’d like to learn more about the challenges this baby Pacific Green turtle will face in its lifetime, read Elisabeth's story on The Planet blog, "Saving the World's Sea Turtles."