I am on a deserted island in the middle of the Solomon Sea where the mama Hawksbill turtles come to lay their eggs. I feel like I’m trespassing into a world both sacred and bizarre. The island I am standing on is a sunken volcano. Imagine flat sand cays in a circle of many missing pieces. Imagine clusters of coconut trees. Imagine seabirds, sand, coral, fish, baby blue saltwater, an emptiness, a fullness, sun, and earth.
The island is called Arnavon. It’s in the Isabel province near Wagina. Yes that’s the name. I’ll say it again, Wagina. But it doesn’t really matter where I am, just pretend that I am on a moon. A tropical moon. That’s what it looks like.
Once I get to a place I can so easily forget how grueling it was to get there and all the sea monsters of the journey dissolve. Dissolve. Dissolve. I can forget how there are two passes to get to this tropical moon and how the chart warns of tide rips and overfalls. I can forget that I made the outer pass right at sunset with a ten foot following sea that was pushing against an out going current and that it was a miserable and prayerful two hour experience and my whole body was on edge and I wanted to give up. I can forget that four wet hours after that I got to the pass to enter the tropical moon in the dead of night. I can forget how the lagoon was all narrow with sharp curves and it was difficult to steer inside of. I can forget how I had to reset my anchor twice and how I finally anchored so shallow that Juniper bumps on the sand at low tide.
That all ended six hours ago and it’s a distant memory. All of it. Right now I’m following a turtle ranger named Moses into some crocodile covered mangroves. It’s low tide. The earth is a all mud and roots. The air is weighted like a truck. And I’m dressed like the Queen of Bohemia. We are walking. Barefoot. And the birds are singing to the wind. We get to a tunnel of trees and Moses tries to get me to go first, but I say, “No, you first so I can save you if the crocodile comes.” Moses laughs. He is shorter than me with soft turtle-saving hands. I’ll mess a croc up better than he can. I’ll get all ghostbusters on the croc and he’ll be wishing he was in the afterlife.
Oh my gosh I almost forgot to tell y’all that a crocodile put his entire mouth around the head and torso of a night fisherman on a nearby island! The man had to whack his speargun into the croc’s mouth in order to break his head free. He has scars on his stomach and everything to prove it. Turns out he was fishing every night for a week in the same spot and the croc was stalking him. I told y’all you have to change up your behavior for the crocodiles.
Moses and I are deep in the mangroves now with all its jungle sounds. It’s not just us out here, trailing behind me like a bouncing tail is the brain doctor and his beautiful crew of thong- bikini-wearing women from the catamaran Cerebral. It’s nice to be around a bunch of cool women. They are always cooking me dinner and braiding my hair. Also one member of the harem is a marine biologist from Wales who happens to be an expert on sea turtles and who also happens to have lost her two front teeth one drunken night at a karaoke bar. That’s sounds so very Welsh. The girls are all twenty years younger than me and they can’t believe my age and they asked me point blank if I’ve ever had any “work done.” Somehow this feels like the greatest compliment and I almost blush.
We are out of the mangroves and standing on a beach on the windward side. I pull a twig out of my hair. The sea is an untamed thing out there raging. All around us there are mounds of sand covered in coconut leaves with sticks poking up next to them. These are the nests. The sticks have the date that the eggs were laid crudely etched onto them.
It takes ninety days for a Hawksbill turtle egg to cook so Moses starts unburying the mounds of sand that have June and July sticks next to them. He puts his hands in the holes, feels around, and says, “they’re not ready yet.” How does he know? I can’t tell what is really happening with his hands and the holes but it happens again and again and again and finally Moses says, “bad luck today.”
We are almost back to the mangroves when Moses bends down to check one more nest. He pulls a turtle out. It’s half the size of my thumb and all energetic. It has got to be the most precious little thing I’ve ever seen. Moses ginger touches the turtles stomach and says, “This one is ready.“ The karaoke-loving marine biologists explains to me that on the stomach is a sack of nutrients that feeds the turtle for it’s first three days of life and Mose is checking to make sure that the sack is hard.
Moses unearths more of the nest. Turtle after turtle after turtle bubbles up and they are all covered in sand and crawling all over each other trying to get out of the hole- away from the dark and into the light.
We take a coconut shell and create a path in the sand that leads to the sea for the turtles to follow. The turtles are reminding me of crabs in a bucket or bees in a hive, the way they are buzzing to get out of their womb of sand. Crawling on top of each other, climbing to get to the edge. It takes thirty minutes for the first turtle to make it to the top. It’s on the sand and springing fast for the sea. Then another and another and another and another and another and they are all waddling in a line down the path.
This is the poetry of nature in full-blown motion. All the little legs. All the little shells. Flowing towards the sea. I’ve never seen something so sweet. Some of the turtles are overtaking their sisters and brothers. Some are still hiding out in the hole. Some are going rogue and crawling across my toes and it tickles.
I am marveling over the fact that none of the turtles are running to the right or left or back behind me towards the direction of the forest, they all run dead ahead towards the sea! How do they come out of the nest and know exactly which way to go? I mean imagine if us humans came out into the world and knew exactly which direction we should go instead of coming out into the world all rudderless. It would save our souls a lot of searching.
All the turtles are out of the nest now. Moses said he counted a hundred of them. The karaoke-loving marine biologist tells me that the turtles go back and lay their eggs in the same place that they themselves hatched. So right now another form of magic is happening called imprinting and it’s how the turtles are memorizing this exact patch of sand and sea. She also tells me that the temperature of the nest determines the sex- hotter temperatures makes female sea turtles and colder makes males. And she says that only one in one thousand turtles will survive to adulthood!
You want to know another tragic thing she told me? Hawksbill turtles have a glamorous shell- it’s all mottled yellow dripping into brown- and it’s so glamorous that people want to wear it, so they hunt them and turn them into jewelry and glasses which are fashionably referred to as tortoiseshell. Yes, Hawksbills are the source all things made from tortoiseshell and because of that they are the most endangered sea turtle on the planet.
The turtles are at the sea now, meeting the crashing waves. White and foam and tortoiseshell. Some waves blow the turtles way back up the shore to some spot they already crawled past ages ago and they have to start their journey all over again and again and again. Eventually they catch an outgoing wave and their bodies go flat and float out into the abyss of lost years. From here on it will be a bloody miracle if the turtles don’t end up inside of some other creature’s mouth.
What a bittersweet spectacle! I feel so right and wrong about it all at once. Those sea turtles, and their lives, so evanescent.
TWO DAY LATER
I helped 208 turtles get born into the world and collected a lot of plastic trash off the tropical moon island. It’s late in the afternoon and I’m sailing in 13 knots of wind on a broad reach against a stormy sky.
I’m run down. Last night I woke up in the height of a storm and never went back to sleep. I was thinking a lot about the turtles and also trying to figure out if I should sail to Indonesia before the northwest monsoons or stay in the Solomon’s. I’m so tired and Indo is so far. I need to sit still.
This sail is mellow so far and tonight I will be beneath the celestial dome by the light of the full moon. By 9 AM tomorrow I should get where I am going- The Sanbis Resort. And I don’t care how early it is when I arrive, I hope they have a pizza and a pina colada I can order…. I haven’t seen a restaurant in more than a month and the pina colada will help me make all of my important decisions about where I’m going and when. I just know it.