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Chiclayo, Perú

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Updated: 3/28/2019

  • Jessica Mastors

Week 13: What To Wear to a Turtle-Release Party?

Picking my way across the wave-beaten rocks, using three points of contact at all times like a good wilderness guide, it occurs to me that maybe I shouldn’t have come this way.

I can see Playa Bacocho in the distance — really, it’s not that far.

But on the way back, will the tide trap me between beaches?

I shake my head, let the thought fall away, replaced by a more urgent one:

The turtles are waiting.

Baby sea turtles. Ready to be released into the ocean.

I emerge from the rocks and walk past the beach club where I sat yesterday with my laptop and piña colada, and at last I arrive at Vive Mar — a few fenced-off quadrangles of beach where (I assume) the eggs are buried.

I pay 100 pesos and am given half a coconut shell in return.

I cup it reverently in both hands, marveling at this soon-to-be-vessel for a baby sea turtle.

As I stand there amidst the growing crowd under the shaded roof, watching people holding and tossing and gesticulating with THEIR coconut bowls, I wonder out loud if they ever run out of baby turtles. An Australian woman overhears me, and says she was thinking the same thing.

With dozens of people present, it just seems like an impossible level of demand to meet — EVERYONE gets a baby turtle, EVERY night at 5pm?

My imagination tries to wrap itself around this high production quota for baby turtles, and can’t.

The talk begins, and I am forced to listen to the English version after inadvertently exposing my American-ness to the Australian.

Of the 7 species of sea turtle in the world — 6 of them are endangered.

Aside from getting trapped in fishing lines and plastic trash, the biggest threat to their survival is how many things like to eat their eggs and meat; particularly the human kind, i.e. poachers.

This is why volunteers for Vive Mar patrol a 27-kilometer stretch of beach every night on their ATV’s, searching for nests and digging them up and re-burying eggs behind these fences, where they can gestate in peace until the babies can be safely released via coconut shell by googly-eyed travelers like me.

Each mama turtle returns to lay eggs on the shore 5 times per year. Each nest can contain anywhere from 30–100 eggs.

Typically, during the summer months of May, June, and July, volunteers will discover one or two nests every single night.

I imagine digging up a treasure trove of 100 turtle eggs, and smile goofily.

Then my heart gives a small gasp when we learn that each baby turtle has only a 1–2% chance of survival.

The volunteer says it so casually, and then it’s time to stand in line and distribute the babies.

I take this opportunity to ask if they ever run out of turtles.

“Yes,” he says, “we’re worried about that today. Summer vacation is starting, so there are more people.”

His words galvanize me, and I jockey my way toward the big plastic bowl where the babies are scrabbling over each other for a foothold.

Suddenly a volunteer’s hand stretches toward me, and there is a baby turtle in my coconut!

Even though they’d just told us that baby turtles don’t develop a gender until they are a month old and are virtually indistinguishable in terms of sex in this moment, I immediately think of my turtle as a tiny dude.

He is perfect and whole, scrabbling in the bowl, swimming furiously in place with his tiny fleshy wings.

He nearly climbs all the way out of the coconut, as I struggle to fulfill the promise that I grudgingly made to Bruce earlier, to take out a camera at this critical moment.

“Today is their birthday,” the volunteer had told us, “they were born today — so feel free to sing.”

I desperately want to do this; to gaze lovingly at my turtle and drink in its perfection and sing it songs and come up with a poem about how far it will swim and how resilient it will be and how bravely it will confront all the vastness and unknowability of the ocean.

But there is no time.

This turtle will wait for no one.

I carry it over to the line of string where everyone else is crouching, ready to release.

Reluctantly, I tip the bowl.

He scrabbles and flops and pauses, disoriented, on the sand.

Then, he’s off.

Some biological urgency drives him forward, toward the crashing waves.

I watch my turtle until he disappears into the surf, and then I watch the other turtles, and then I watch the surf for a while.

As I walk back across the rocks (still passable two hours later), I think about the fact that sea turtles can live for over a hundred years.

When I get home, I google “turtle symbolism” and read about longevity, patience, and ancient wisdom.

I think, ironically, of the sheer urgency of that baby turtle, who wanted nothing more than to get in that ocean and swim.

And I can’t help but compare this (anthropomorphically) to the urgency I sometimes get so wrapped up in; around making the most of the day or being as productive as possible or moving forward towards my goal.

And in this moment, that urgency strikes me as naïve; the biological impulse of a baby turtle, completely new to life.

For while there are times when urgency serves a purpose — when there are waves to catch, for example, and predacious crabs to avoid — perhaps there is even greater wisdom in letting that urgency mellow, over time, into something more essential and true.

Perhaps the real challenge, as we grow from babies into adults, is to let go of all that perceived urgency.

To release the compulsive, frantic need to get it done and move ahead and onto the next thing.

And, instead, to recognize when we’ve arrived; when it is time, instead, to be present, and to surrender to the longer cycles of growth and transformation that are invisibly taking place around and within us…

… And, in the meantime, to enjoy the ride.

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