Friday, January 25, 2008

Night of the Tortugas

In Japan, the crane is an auspicious animal and you'll see crane images on serving bowls, kimono, carvings, and most of all, wedding cards. Their courtship rituals are breathtaking and you wouldn't dance like that for just anyone. Cranes mate for life.

The other "auspicious" animal is the turtle. I don't think they have tortoises in Japan -- just sea turtles. They represent longevity and are a constant motif. Anyone familiar with Japanese folk tales will know the story of Urashima Taro, a fisherman who saved a turtle from bullying kids and was rewarded with a trip to the Underwater Palace, filled with all things wonderful. It was so wonderful that he lost his sense of time and when he finally got homesick enough to ask the turtle to take him back, it had been a hundred years or more. (Actually, in the fairy tale, he was sent back with a gift box. As soon as he opened the box, he turned into the old man he really was and came to his senses and realized that he'd been gone a looooong time and no one he knew was alive in his village anymore. Why are fairy tales so dark and cruel? Won't kids believe that turtles are evil creatures to be bullied after hearing this story?)

Sadly, in real life, there is nothing auspicious about either cranes or turtles. There are fewer than 2000 Japanese Cranes in the world. On top of all the "regular" factors decimating animal populations, this species has the added burden of politics. Japan and Russia have long been in dispute over the islands that are the habitat of these stately creatures. (You really do want to take the idiot politicians out to the Kuril Islands and have them watch these birds. Maybe it would help them put their differences aside. Maybe they'll just say "Oh, to heck with it. Let the birds have the islands." Maybe they'll even agree to make it an international crane sanctuary. ........and maybe monkeys will fly out of my butt. Sigh.)

But more on cranes another day. Many marine turtles are also on the brink of extinction and last night was the Night of the Tortugas.

"Hey, the tourist police are trying to round up volunteers to help release turtle hatchlings tonight. Wanna come?"
One of the Canadian dry campers who come down like migrating geese to these shores for the winter, Eagle, spotted us on the dusty street as Big Dog and I were heading home from our grocery shopping.

"Sure!"
"You can ride with us if you want."

At 5pm, we were gathered in the jardin, around the police truck. They would lead a convoy of vehicles to one of the several turtle rescue outreach offices dotted along this coast. "Costa Alegre," as this stretch between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo is called, turns out to be a marketers' name. It was once known as Costa Careyes, after the carey, or hawksbill, turtle.

The police led us off the highway, onto a hidden dirt road that wound its way through a giant banana plantation. Both sides of the road were thick with banana plants, newspaper and plastic bags protecting the ripening bananas. After passing through a tiny village with laughing, waving kids, we came to a mushy, mosquito-infested estuary. A small boat with motor was there to take us to the other side, but since it could only take 5 or 6 at a time, the rest of us were stranded there, swatting at mosquitos that found our sweet flesh in no time at all.

We were nearly the last ones to get across and the remaining light had dwindled to a soft sliver of orange on the horizon. Yellow light seeped out from the "office," a canvas tent on the beach.

"Let's go look at the babies!" I ran up the beach to the office. Next to the office was a fenced off area. This must be the incubation site. Foot-long sticks poked out in orderly rows in some areas. That must be to mark the eggs.

Inside the office, in a large plastic tub, were dozens of hatchlings squirming about.

"The smaller ones are called golfino and the larger ones are laud. They are the largest turtle in the world," explained one of the conservation staff.

It was completely dark now and we were still waiting.

"We're waiting for the President," I overheard one Mexican explaining to an impatient gringa. There was some back and forth before it was made clear that we weren't really waiting for the President of Mexico, but a county official. Mayor? Governor? The details were lost in the cracks between English and Spanish.

"This whole thing was arranged as a photo op," I whispered to Big Dog. "We're just props."

"Well. whatever it takes," he whispered back. "If we can be the props to keep the conservation budgets coming, if we can be the props to raise awareness, it's all good." He paused and added, "I knew that machine gun was there for something!"

While we were being bitten by mosquitos, Big Dog had spotted a policeman toting a machine gun and went to talk to him. ("Donde esta la guerra?")

"He said it was dangerous south of Manzanillo, but he didn't have the machine gun because of banditos or whatever on this beach!"

Eventually, the "President" and his entourage arrived and we gathered around Senor Tortuga, as I called the moustachioed head of operations. He gave a quick bilingual lecture (quite impressive!) about their operation and the turtles. How we have to release them at night so the predators are less likely to get them, how the babies have a tiny hole on the underside on its shell where they will gather information about the water, sand and coordinates so they can return to the very same beach to give birth when the time comes, how the laud (leatherbacks) can grow to the size of Volkswagen Beetles, that there are four laud females that currently nest on this beach (quite impressive when there are only about 34,000 nesting females in the entire world).....

Left to themselves, the babies will poke their way out of the shells but will not come out of the sand during the day. They wait until the sand has cooled down. Then, in the night, they move en masse to the water. Scientists believe the "imprinting" is a chemical process that allows the turtles to memorize sand conditions so they can return. Once in the water, they have a week's worth of reserve nutrients before they have to find nutrient-rich feeding zones. Their first year is a mystery -- they just seem to disappear off the radar and biologist don't know much about this period in their lives.

Senor Tortuga showed us how to hold the hatchlings before we place them on the sand while his assistants passed out baby turtles, first to the children there.

"You can even give yours a name, if you want," he continued. "OK. Now, on the count of three, put your baby turtles on the sand, pointing towards the ocean. Uno, dos, tres!"

The kids scrambled down the slope of the beach towards the water, each one placing his or her turtle on the sand. Flashlight beams zig-zagged across the beach, illuminating the beginning of an awesome voyage. Some were strong and pumped their way quickly to the waves. Each time a wave came up to a turtle, we oohed and aahed. Some were not as strong, or they would turn around and head back up. Some had to be helped along. Others would be pushed back by a wave. How many would make it back to this beach in ten, twenty, even fifty years?

Now, the adults were allowed to take a turtle and put it on the sand. It was dark and a little chaotic. I was so freaked out about somebody stepping onto a baby turtle by mistake in the darkness that all I could do was squat on the sand, near a struggling little guy, shielding it with my body. Now, if someone stepped too close to the turtle, they would fall on me instead. Eventually, the initial madness waned enough for me to get a laud baby of my own.

It was roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes (terrible comparison, but in Japan, they always put a pack of cigarettes next to something when they want to show its relative size!) I was impressed with the strength it packed in such a tiny body. Mr. Tortuga was right. You had to press down on its shell to keep it from flipping off your hand. Walking closer to the waves, I placed her (I hoped it was a "her") on the sand.

"Go, sweetie, go!" I cheered inside as she crawled towards the ocean. She seemed determined. "Go, go, go! Allez, allez, allez!"

Watching her struggle towards the water filled me with wonder. Tears welled up in my eyes and I was glad it was as dark as it was.

"Voy, vas, va, vamos, van!" Sometimes happiness will make a person incredibly silly.

I wished with all my heart that she will be protected from predators, will find a safe haven and lots of food, and one day, a mate. I prayed for my father's spirit, my grandmothers', my dead brother's and unborn children's spirits to guard her from danger. Why should our spirits go up to the sky? We are born of water. We are of this earth. When we go, why shouldn't we return to the Great Mother?

I released a few more golfino (olive ridley) turtles, watching them crawl into the big, dark ocean.

"Be strong! Live long!" my heart cried out. It will be a long, scary night. How will they survive it? How will they survive beyond? I imagined them in the dark waters, tossed about by the waves, fighting for their lives, all alone.


But perhaps we are the ones who need their strength more.

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