It’s almost one in the morning when I see my first turtle. She’s a leatherback, black and almost six feet long. She moves up the beach in the dark, slowly, as if carrying a great burden. Turning her massive body, back feet now facing us, she begins to dig. There’s sand flying everywhere, and we move to avoid it, trying to be quiet. There are six of us staring at her, but she seems almost oblivious to our presence. She’s focused on the task at hand. With the hole dug, she stands over it and lets her eggs drop in. They come in bursts, slimy and about the size of golf balls, falling into the sand, plopping into the nest she’s made. As she lets them go, tears stream down her face. Locals say that she’s crying at the thought of being separated from her babies. Science says she’s shedding salt from her body. There’s so much gravity in the air, so much at stake that I want to believe she feels what’s going on. In a world where fewer and fewer turtles are able to survive long enough to complete the cycle she’s beginning tonight, her presence here is beautiful, awe-inspiring, a tale of triumph. And yet the odds are stacked against her. I’m thirteen, only in eighth grade, but something in her eyes speaks to a much older part of me. I feel the emergency of the situation, the sad truth that the actions of my species are driving her kind to extinction. I see the same recognition in her tears, not directed at me, but a general sense of weariness, of someone who’s lived too long and watched the world grow less familiar, less safe. I’m afraid to move, afraid to disturb something much older and more profound than I will ever be. We all watch in silence as she covers her progeny in sand and heads back towards the ocean. And then the stillness of the moment is gone. Walkie-talkies crackle, informing others that we’ve got a turtle nest. And our work begins.
This night, I’m at a turtle station in Costa Rica. The station exists because leatherbacks and other sea turtles are under assault on multiple fronts. Habitat loss and pollution are disrupting their lives in the ocean. Human development and construction threaten the beaches where they lay their eggs. Hatchlings are confronted with a loud, confusing world upon their emergence from the safety of an eggshell, and too many of them head towards the glowing lights of civilization instead of into the water they should learn to call home. And as if all this weren’t enough, poaching of nests has become more common, turtle eggs having become a valuable black market delicacy. Our task, on this one stretch of beach, is simple. We find the nests, dig them up, and move the eggs to a fenced-off hatchery where they can be monitored and guarded against poachers. We take away their wildness in exchange for a higher survival rate because right now, the stakes are too high to sit by and let nature take its course. I’m on the late patrol, 12:30-4:30am. Since I’m thirteen, I’ve only stayed up this late once or twice in my life. The feeling that I’m awake well past my bedtime only adds to the gravity of the situation and makes the entire night feel surreal.
That week I spent in Costa Rica awakened something inside of me. I’d always known conservation was important, but that trip put that knowledge right in front of me. It’s so easy to rationalize away extinctions, to shrug and sigh and ask what we could have done differently. But spending a night watching turtles lay their eggs, and you start to see the stakes. You know in your head that their tears are just a process that’s evolved to allow them to live in salt water, but you still feel like you’re being initiated into the process of life and death, like the universe is giving you a glimpse behind the curtain.
Now, I’m in the Galapagos Islands. The air here is pregnant with environmental conflict and scientific importance. This is where Charles Darwin himself discovered natural selection, for God’s sake. And after centuries of human interference and millions of tourists coming in and out, Galapagos is threatened too. There are introduced species threatening native birds. There’s trash building up from residents and from ever-increasing levels of tourists. I don’t need to see turtles laying eggs in the wee hours of the morning to feel that same imperative, the same sense that very real things are at stake. Today, we hiked around Santiago Island on lava flows, and we saw a species of plant that’s endemic to that island only. This tiny little succulent vine has managed to survive growing between the black cracks in the lava, and it’s found nowhere else on earth. Everywhere we’ve been in Ecuador is ecologically important, and everywhere has endemic species. But something about the Galapagos Island manages to capture that imperative better even than remote corners of the Amazon that are threatened by oil extraction. The blue waters and sun and geologically spectacular islands make me feel like I’ve come to the end of the world, or a close enough approximation to serve as a set for either Planet Earth or Pirates of the Caribbean. There are sea lions and marine iguanas everywhere, plus Darwin’s famous finches. And it’s beautiful. Spectacularly so.
Here too, there are turtles in the water. They’re green sea turtles, smaller than the leatherbacks I saw in Costa Rica, but they look similar enough that I get the same feeling. These are old animals, both individually and evolutionarily. They’re reptiles who would not look out of place alongside the dinosaurs, and each individual lives longer than most humans ever will. The nature writer Craig Childs told me last fall that you should never listen to anyone who tells you not to anthropomorphize animals, because assigning human emotions and motivations to animals is the only way we have to relate, empathize and care for them. So I watch these turtles, the way they move through the water with such slow grace and I think that they must feel the changes in their world. Maybe they’re largely insulated from the effects of civilization since they live in one of the most protected marine reserves on earth. But turtles have been known to migrate extraordinary distances, and I can’t help but think that they must notice the plastic building up in the oceans, the rising temperatures and sea levels, the way more and more two-legged creatures come in boats every year, pointing cameras at them and exclaiming in delight every time one of them sticks its head above the water to breathe. More than noticing, I look at these old sea creatures, and I think they must understand. They have to see how it’s connected, how the increased presence of humans is tied to the trash in their home, to the slow erosion of their slow way of life.
I want someone from the animal kingdom to hold us accountable, and these ancient reptiles seem like appropriate stewards of the place where life began in a primordial stew. Every single species of marine turtle is endangered on a global level, and I worry that this is the only reprimand they’ll give us. Turtles don’t cry out asking to be saved, and they don’t hold the same imperative that seems to come with polar bears and wolves. I worry that their last message will be almost silent, that they won’t warn us. I worry that they will slip away, and their absence will speak louder than the rasping way they take in air, heads just barely above the surface of the water, entering our above-ground world for a second before vanishing back into the blue-green depths of the ocean.