The Day the Turtle Cried
- Asia, Philippines
- Personal Essay
By the time we arrived at the beach, the yellow sun was high in the sky guiding us through the path between mangrove trees. We used the roots of these trees as footsteps and jumped from one to the other above brown, muddy water. My white toes wrapped awkwardly around the thick roots, while the dark brown toes of my friends sprang from one set of roots to another. The mangroves thinned, the light increased, and finally our bare feet touched the bright white sand. At first, the sun blinded all of us, and it took a few moments to realize that a small group of fishermen had encircled us. They all began talking at once, pointing, shouting, smiling, and gesturing towards the turquoise-blue sea. One of them clasped my hand and led me ankle deep into the warm Philippine Sea.
We waded a little bit and then I saw it: a large, thick, checker-boarded turtle weaving through the sea grasses. The long sea grasses swayed back and forth, and for those first few silent moments, all of us were in awe. The local fishermen had caught this particular sea turtle, known as a Hawksbill in English, a few weeks before. Traditionally, sea turtles are a rare delicacy in the Philippines and a hearty snack. But recently, as groups learn more about the sea turtle's relationship to the coral reefs and the world's food supply, some brave community members are releasing the turtles back into their natural habitat, the sea.
We watched the turtle swim farther and farther away, out towards the corals, and then continue on down the beach. Local fishermen, environmental officials, and some of my co-workers and myself had been releasing several sea turtles in one of the more remote fishing communities we worked in. We continued down the beach with our friends. We passed through a beachside hut and found people weighing and cutting fish in the back. Sitting under a shaded tree was a large bucket with another turtle.
As we approached, it lifted its ancient head out of the water and rapidly tried to paddle away. Quickly, I bent down and lifted its large bulking body just out of the water and securely held its flippers in place so they would not be damaged. Quickly, with the help of some youth and fishermen, we measured the turtle's shell size to determine its age, fastened a tag to it, and scooped it up. Two of us carried it slowly and carefully down to the ocean. Close to the shore I called to my friend Raymond, a teenager from the area. This community was his home. Just before I released my grip I turned to him, and our eyes met.
"It is because of you and your care that this turtle is going back where it belongs," I told him.
Raymond smiled a knowing fifteen-year-old smile. Together with local community members, he set it down not far from the surf. The turtle crawled, slowly at first, and then more and more effortlessly as it came closer to the ocean. The sand became firmer; the turtle lengthened its neck, and hobbled closer and closer on its flippers. A wave washed it back to the sea. One flipper worked at first, and then another, and next all four flippers worked in unison. I lifted my camera to my eye and snapped pictures as its jewel-patterned shell headed farther and farther out. It swam through the maze of corals, wove itself among the deeper sea grasses, and gradually faded from our vision.
Not far from the beach, some local teachers and I sat down for a lunch of white rice, boiled fresh fish, and chicken. As we ate, we talked about the importance of turtles, and the small sheltered coastline areas where they like to lay their eggs. The turtles lay hundreds of eggs at a time. While some become food for birds and sea snakes, the surviving baby turtles eat sea grasses. Sea grasses prevent sand and mud from flooding into the ocean and covering the reefs. While turtles encourage the growth of sea grasses by regular feedings, they also are protectors of the coral reefs. Coral reefs only grow in clean, warm tropical waters. It is because of coral reefs and the protecting sea grasses that fish can grow, be protected from predators, and become part of the food chain. Each day I rely on this food chain. One square kilometer of healthy coral reef produces 30 metric tons of fish per year-enough to feed 600 people each year!
Despite the incredible beauty of the ocean and nearby coral reefs, the sea turtles are not always happy. We discovered this when we journeyed to the next house to visit a third turtle.
If a turtle could look sad, then this one surely was in tears. As we approached the small bucket, we saw the turtle's tired body floating in the dirty water. A dark green algae covered its carapace. Its eyes blinked once and then shut tight. It hung loosely in the air when lifted, its weakened flippers dangling in the air after being confined for months. Raymond took it and held it higher for all of us to inspect. Then, with great care, he embraced it like he would a child, keeping the turtle close to his own chest. The turtle did not struggle. Raymond, empathizing with the turtle, turned very sad. We discussed its health with the owner, and determined that it was too sick and weak to release.
Carefully, we took it down to the ocean to wash it off and release it in a small tidal pool. We watched as it swam hungrily to a small bed of sea grass, first confusing small pieces of plastic bags for food, but then going to the sea grasses. It gobbled mouthfuls of grass and seaweed and took big breaths of air. Later, we gently massaged layers of algae off its beautiful shell. We decided to give this turtle to the local school as an environmental project: they could monitor its health, feed it regularly, and give it regular exercise. This is a large responsibility for the school kids, and something that everyone in the community has begun to talk about.
Before we left the community that day, we visited a family that kept another sea turtle. They did not want to release it. We spent time talking about the importance of sea turtles and their need to be kept in their natural habitat. Although the people were nice, challenging tradition-even if it is good for local people and the environment-is often difficult. As we started to leave, I made plans to return the following week, and said goodbye to Raymond. As if he was responsible, Raymond apologized for the family's refusal to release the turtle. Cultural beliefs and traditions, both in the tropics and the United States, sometimes conflict with environmental protection.
Although it was late when I arrived back home, I decided to go for a swim. As I walked down to the river, I felt the sand becoming harder and harder. I touched the water with my toes, dove in, and began to move my limbs like a sea turtle. I swallowed a big mouthful of salt water, with the same awkwardness that a newly released sea turtle might. I dove deep into the moonlit river, the salt water stinging my eyes. I thought of the turtle that we could not release, and how it had been mistreated. I felt powerless. The sea turtle, a highly endangered species, was threatened. No matter how hard my friends and I tried, we could not save them all.
People are only beginning to understand the complex relationship between sea life and human life. I smiled at the progress, even if it was small. Today, one sea turtle was sad, but two were happy. For today, at least, maybe this was enough.