By Ara Jansen
It was one of those nights where I didn’t appreciate what was to come. Or maybe I just never expected it to be anything other than another part of this bigger adventure.
A group of us were camped out on a beach at Tulum, Mexico. We’d been basking in our hammocks for a few days. It was a friend’s birthday and we’d managed to sneak a piñata into the luggage and keep it hidden until dinner.
Our guide announced after its cracking that we were heading to Xcacel later that evening to see the turtles.
Poor Winnie the Pooh, our piñata became the mascot on our van for the next couple of days. His head was on the front and disembodied legs tied to the back of our van only to be lost on a rather empty stretch of highway where the tarantulas were huge enough you could see them majestically promenading across the road as we hurtled by at 110.
Was it a strange co-incidence or did I know what was to come? That afternoon I had sat on the beach to do a sunset meditation and had the urge to draw a turtle shape around me. Half way through the meditation, my eyes opened and I knew I had to carve the shape out around me, with the head pointing to the ocean. That completed, I dropped back into my peaceful space until someone called me for dinner.
Around midnight we piled into our van and headed off to Xcacel, the beach on the Caribbean coast where they are trying to preserve turtles and keep them away from predators, like crabs, birds and of course humans.
After some discussion between our guide and one of the turtle biologists we were allowed to park ourselves under a thatched palapa overlooking the long beach. There were a few logs to perch on but for the most we were on the sand waiting for something to happen.
To our left was the hatchery, a large enclosed space of sand marked by popsicle sticks with dates on them. These were the eggs they had taken from laying mothers which would yield babies at a later date.
There was a moon, but it wasn’t full, so visibility was down. The low light made us sleepy; we were starting to nod off, finding pillows in each other’s laps. The grumbling had started too. What were we doing here? Was anything going to happen? Surely our hammocks were much more comfortable. Our guide stood strong, determined something would happen if we waited it out. His hunch rewarded us. Much later.
Turtle biologists walked up and down the white beaches shining flashlights. They walked in twos with a series of code-like flashes which would signal a female turtle making her way up the beach. They walked. We waited. No signals came.
There’s a hint of a breeze and it’s a balmy night. It’s hard to stay awake. Semi-darkness, the lapping of the waves, nothing to see but the constant hope of something. False alarms force us back on alert.
At the point of feeling totally disheartened, there was action on the beach to my left. A huge green-flippered mother turtle was out of the water and heading for the dunes at the top of the beach. She moved with speed, making a straight course. No one approached her until she had settled. Her flippers started going crazy, digging a hole. Once the hole was big enough, she started laying eggs. By then, the biologists were next to her and positioned themselves either side to catch her eggs. They counted and placed them in a bag to bury in the hatchery.
Once the mother started laying we could have had a carnival around her and she never would have noticed; she was totally in a trance with nothing able to distract her.
In small clusters we were ushered up to the laying turtle. We observe and ask a few quiet questions. By the time we’ve all had a turn, the turtle has laid over one hundred eggs. I cast a silent wish the majority of them will one day make it onto the beach to lay their own eggs.
I felt like a voyeur or watcher to an incredibly personal moment, and possibly the most important in this creature’s life. It was fascinating, but the most amazing part was yet to come. Heading back to our van we were greeted by a crate of wriggling baby turtles. Hundreds of them. We were asked to put them into the water.
Under the fading moon I grabbed two babies gingerly, faced them towards the water, put them in the sand and let them to their fate. Then two more and another two. By the end of it I was offering also prayers for their future and hoping they had one.
I’m not particularly a greenie and don’t carry any overplayed maternal instincts but this act, done in virtual silence and under a barely-there moon, blew my mind.
Standing there as a silent witness was powerful beyond words and brought with it tears for as many reasons. I felt truly privileged. Like any significant moment, it starts to make you question what you really are doing with your life.
I could feel soft little feet scratching across my hand. Facing the turtles seaward I made sure they got to the water before a crab or bird came to for them. Setting these hatchlings free was a small piece of conservation with big pay offs.
I knew then something had changed.