What is it about sea turtles? When I tell someone—anyone—that I swam with sea turtles, their eyes smile, shoulders drop, cheek muscles soften. Ohhh, I love sea turtles comes next. And then we no longer know what to say.
Here is a weighty marine vertebrate with barnacles growing on its armored back, noteworthy claws on its hind flippers, wide walnut eyes, and a neck that on any human signals the beginning of the end: creased, spotted, sloping, the kind from which middle-aged women deflect attention with pearly pendants or opt for cosmetic surgery. Here is a creature with a slightly protruding upper jaw for digging sponges out of coral reefs and a receding chin, an implacable expression, tough skin and no ability to shrink into its shell like the paradigmatic notions of turtles we grew up with, or as any reference to human introspection might metaphorically suggest.
So, what is it about sea turtles? When I jumped off a boat 21 miles off the coast of Belize, a bronze russet turtle was just passing by. It never batted an eye. My heart raced. It glided. I pursued, feeling the pump of my flippers in my thighs. Rushing through my body was a feeling that some nexus of factors, something, must have ensured my good luck. A sea turtle, and so large! Light glinted on its wide yellow head and all along its plated back where burgundy splashes like fifteen sunsets appeared down each row of scutes. I caught up and swam alongside not four feet away, close enough to see neck wrinkles and flipper nails, nearly close enough to touch though I didn’t. It slid downward and poked along the sandy bottom about twenty-five feet below, slowing as it grazed on things I couldn’t see, staying down minute upon minute far longer than I could ever imagine holding one’s breath and then without any haste wafted upward and took a bite of air. This sort of turtle, a loggerhead, can dive for four hours—not minutes, I later learned—and when cold and sleepy remain very still on the sea floor for seven hours, the longest dive of any marine vertebrate.
Fun facts. But, what is it about sea turtles?
I begin to think it’s the angel wings—the incongruous fact of wings on a bulky hard-shelled creature. And then their movement, these round-edged flippers slowly waving up and down while the back ones rest behind, as if to say, no need, I swim with ease, the water never hinders, while fore flippers rise and fall and coast. The turtle’s gentle buoyancy seems innocent and incongruous in a milieu of flashing barracuda and skittish squid, oddly endearing on a creature with aged neck wrinkles and a massive head that appears to have witnessed the past hundred million years of evolution with steady tolerance. Is that the allure, then? That the turtle is a giant oxymoron? Like forty-foot whale sharks that frolic with divers. Or, conversely, graceful Machineel trees in a rain forest oozing milky sap that burns and blinds.
Or is it admiration for the fact the turtle lives at all, incarnating a child’s daydreams as he watches little green turtles in a plastic habitat or finds a box turtle in the woods, and defying the odds against its very survival, which are about a thousand to one. Sea turtles don’t even have sex till they’re thirty or so, giving birth at around the same age as today’s millennials, though courtship lacks the requisite frills. When a female signals fertility, a male circles around, tapping her with his flippers while other males hover, interfere and fight to replace him. The winner mounts and grasps her shoulders, often breaking off bits of her shell, while the jealous losers bite the flippers and tail of the copulating male. After this not so dreamy procedure, the male is done, and off he swims. One never sees a male on land, while the female as child bearer trudges up the sand, digs a hole with her back flippers and deposits about a hundred and twenty eggs like a bucket of golf balls, which she carefully conceals. Early one morning I watched a loggerhead get up from her crater in the sand and waddle down the beach, all flippers arduously pushing and heaving, leaving regular ridges in the sand like tire tracks of an SUV. She didn’t look back. Her eggs might well be devoured by a raccoon, skunk, or fox.
Two months later under the cover of night, any surviving hatchlings appear and aim for a glint of moonlight or starlight on the water. They clamber, sometimes bumping headlong into broken bottles and plastic, as they literally run for their lives from crabs and frigates and gulls. I have never seen this (except on Youtube) where I watched one little orphan beating it to the sea. I don’t know if that one made it, but I keep re-playing the image in my mind—the turtle seemed so utterly lonely and brave and desperate to live, scrambling for a mirage of safety where a barracuda might find it, after all, or a fishing net, by happenstance. I can only think of the slow progress of rocking my infant children, of feeling their fingers around one of mine, of holding their hands as they took first steps.
What is it about sea turtles that compels me to sentimentalize them and question if that is so wrong. Yes, hawks swoop down on rabbits, lions take down gazelles, piranhas eat everything—all the stuff of the Nature Channel—my beloved dog ate my less beloved rooster though at the time my parents hid it from me thinking their six year old would hold a grudge against the dog. But they were wrong—I would’ve gotten over it. More unsettling is the plight of a motherless turtle scrambling toward the unknown.
A number of ancient myths and creation stories lend sea turtles powers of nurturing that they don’t actually practice so I’m clearly not alone in sensing something preternaturally benign in these creatures with their vague, omniscient eyes. Hawaiian myths credit sea turtles with guiding the first Polynesian sailors to the shores of the big island. And a famous story recounts that a beautiful green turtle named Honu-po’o-kea with a glowing white head crawled up on the black sand of Punalu’u one night and laid a sleek, dark egg. Her mate, Honu-‘ea, with a handsome auburn shell, advanced onto the beach to help her dig a deep spring in the sand. Then they left. After some time the abandoned baby, Kauila, hatched and grew into a magical being who swam in the pool that brought fresh water to the people. Divers dove deep and scooped up the water in gourds. When children came to the spring, they watched the surface of the water. If they saw bubbles, they knew Kauila was sleeping. But if awake, she transformed into a little girl and came out to play with them and keep watch over them. Not only did she find companionship, but she provided protection for those who were vulnerable and unaware. Her idyllic life is not incompatible with our sense of the nature of turtles yet wildly remote from the fate of a hatchling skittering down the beach under fire from gulls.
If and when baby turtles enter the shallows, they remain prime targets, unable to dive, unable to take on a torpedoing frigate, and—with top swimming speed a half mile per hour—unable to out-swim a grouper. All they have going for them is an innate knowledge of shifting magnetic fields across the globe. This intuition, not a mother, acts as guide and the accuracy is astounding. A solitary leatherback or loggerhead may circle the Sargasso Sea, covering thousands of miles and requiring years to complete a full migration back to the precise spot where it hatched. The loggerhead’s immense size—up to six feet long, a thousand pounds—equips it to deal with cold water, so after leaving the balmy Caribbean it swims to Nova Scotia where it can consume its weight in jellyfish in the course of a day. From there it might head down the middle of the Atlantic or swim on to the coast of Portugal before turning south along the western coast of Africa and then west across the ocean to the same Caribbean water. Out in the deep ocean the turtle is less vulnerable than in the shallows. When not riding on currents it actively swims, often up to fifteen miles an hour, which is more than three times faster than an Olympian swimmer. Loggerheads have been tracked crossing the entire Pacific, swimming 6,000 miles from Baja to Japan, feeding, growing, then turning around and paddling all the way back. Even after this lonely migration a turtle may not yet lay eggs, but complete another migration, spending twelve long years before dragging herself up the beach. I think of the first twelve years of my children’s lives, the hourly interaction of feeding and safeguarding their existence, the first school buses carrying them off and my efforts to read their day in their eyes as they descended the steps of the bus that brought them home. All those years of guiding, dispelling nightmares, bandaging cuts, cooking, hoping, and crying inwardly when they cried. All those years, and then, imagine: a grown turtle swims to its natal beach and finds a seawall, a resort, homeland vanished. Ancient Greeks believed that if a body went unburied, its disconsolate spirit would wander the earth for all eternity, lonely and longing. This is the sea turtle’s fate for without its Ithaca, it will keep swimming, keep roaming, keep searching and never ever spawn.
Many Indian tribes of northeastern America share a legend that the world was created on the back of a sea turtle, and some refer to North America as Turtle Island. Again, the elusive behavior of the reptiles runs counter to the image in the stories. According to Mohawk myth, a Great Spirit presided over a sky full of Superior Beings, high above a world of inchoate water, birds and fish. When the Great Spirit’s daughter got pregnant illicitly, he ripped up an enormous tree and threw her into the gaping hole left by its roots. This was his method of instruction or discipline, not an attempt on her life since he asked the Great Turtle to rise from the bottom of the water and act as a landing strip to brace her fall. The daughter lived on the turtle’s back and began to form the earth from the slime that coated it. When her child was born, a daughter, the two women continued to make the earth with their hands. I like thinking about the earth coming from the turtle’s travels, its accumulated experience manifest as slime on its back. And I like to think of women molding the earth like clay rather than a paternalistic god ordering it into being. Still, why the turtle? Did its hard shield evoke such awe that this creature became the rock of the world? I doubt the answer is so simple.
Maybe humans retain some collective memory from our common origins with all sorts of creatures in the sea. Maybe humans and sea turtles share a common ancestor, a sponge whose brainless larvae moved about the water sniffing out places to settle down, and though some took root, others may have kept on swimming, evolved, reproduced while floating, and given rise to other mobile creatures. Or our distant commonality might have been a jellyfish sort of being floating ghost-like in the ocean and pulsing with a first system of neurons some 700 million years ago. One of my earliest memories is of water. When I was two, I used to duck my head underwater in the bathtub and truly believed I could breathe. This, of course, proves nothing.
And yet, like the magical Kauila, who conflates the aquatic and the human, there are mermaids, and Triton with two fish tails, and Matsya, avatar of Lord Vishnu, half man, half fish, and other configurations of some odd longing for what we cannot experience or for what we once did and lost.