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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Voices from the Wild

Last Beachhead?

By Tamia Nelson

A Note to the Reader

I found the following message written on the packed sand of a lonely Pacific beach, and I just managed to transcribe it before the swash of the tide obliterated the painfully-traced letters. Now the beach is alone once more, silent and waiting. But for how long? And for what?

May 27, 2003

I've come full circle. It's not true that I've come home, however. For more than half a century, the sea has been my only home. But this beach was my birthplace. And now I've returned to it, to leave my eggs in the same warm sand that sheltered me and my one hundred brothers and sisters so many years ago, before our first, desperate dash toward the sea. The circle of my life has closed. Soon my children will be racing toward the same sea — and home.

Yet this narrow strip of beach will always be their birthplace, their only beachhead on the alien land. And in another half century, who knows? One or two of my children may return here to lay their eggs. Our beach isn't much to look at, I admit. Nothing at all compared to the dark vastness of the sea. Just a few hundred yards of moonlit sand, washed by the Pacific Ocean swell. But it's enough: my children's…birthright? No, that's not true, is it? Nature doesn't recognize title to land. No matter how ancient a creature's lineage may be, all of us live from day to day. We're all tenants at will — yes, even you humans. Turtle or man, it makes no difference. We're all subject to eviction at any time, without notice or appeal.

Still, it can't be denied that pedigree counts for something, and my family has been around longer than most. Some of you know us as green turtles. Others call us black turtles. The scientists among you call us Chelonia mydas. You're welcome to call us what you want. Names are only labels of convenience. We've always thought of ourselves as The People. We still do.

It's getting lighter in the east now. Sunrise can't be too far away. Then it will be time for me to go back home. But I'll rest here a few minutes first. You've no idea how hard it is for me to move on land. How I miss the freedom of the sea! I've no choice, though. I must lay my eggs in sand, somewhere where they'll be warmed by the sun, somewhere close to the water's edge.

I don't mean to complain. The People are a phlegmatic race. We endure. We keep ourselves to ourselves. But I don't mind admitting that it's been a very hard night's work. First, I had to heave my three hundred and fifty pounds up on shore. Next, I needed to scoop out a pit in the sand above the tide-line. Only then could I get started on the real business of the night: laying my eggs — one hundred and eleven tonight alone, more than three hundred in all in just this year. And even when the last egg fell from my body, I still wasn't finished. Not until I'd filled in the pit and covered my eggs in sand could I think about heading back to the sea. Back to my home.

Like I said, it's hard work, and it's a good thing I only have to do it every two or three years. Of course, hard as it is, it's nothing compared to what my children will face. And they'll have to face it without me. We turtles aren't like you humans. We're not social animals. When my children emerge from their eggs, I'll be long gone. A baby turtle's first steps are a race for life, a breakneck scramble down the beach toward the shining breakers. A race toward the welcoming, terrifying sea. A few will survive the gauntlet of hungry crabs and waiting shorebirds. Many more won't, however. And many won't even get the chance to run the race. Some other creature — a dog, perhaps, or a rat, or a man, trying to make a few bucks to feed his kids — may dig up my eggs long before any of them are ready to hatch

That's life, isn't it? Or death. And right now death's on a winning streak. The People haven't been doing very well lately. Our prospects in the years to come don't look much better, either. It's not just the starving dogs and the foraging humans. It's folks like you, folks who love our beaches so much that they want to build a house — or a hundred houses, or even a hotel — on the same sand that shelters our eggs. You say you're not in the market for a beachfront condo? Then maybe you just want to drive over our beach in your shiny new SUV. It makes no difference in the end. We turtles can swim for thousands of miles, but we can't climb a three-foot seawall. And however tough the leathery shells of our eggs might be, they won't withstand the weight of a two-ton truck.

You understand, don't you? It's a matter of life and death. Each place like this one is a vital beachhead for The People. And every one of our beaches that's lost to what you humans call "development" is another lost battle in our struggle to survive. Even your street-lights can kill our children, tricking them into heading away from the shining breakers — luring them away from home toward certain death.

But The People don't give up easily. We endure. And each year some of our children survive the gauntlet and make it out through the breakers. Not that this means they're safe from all harm, of course. But the sea is their home. If they don't get trapped in a tuna-boat's purse-seine and drown — yes, we can drown; we live in the sea, but we breath air just like you do — they'll have a fighting chance of living long enough to have children of their own. That's all any of us can hope for.

A fighting chance. No more than that. There are no guarantees. When all is said and done, survival's a numbers game, and it takes us even longer to grow up than it does you: twenty years or more. So a female like me has to beat the odds again and again just to make it back to her birthplace to lay her first clutch of eggs, the eggs that are the only hope for my race. And the list of dangers we face is a long one. Beachfront development, sewage pollution, oil spills, dogs, rats, poachers, crabs, shorebirds, nets, sharks — not that they're doing all that well today, either — even plastic bags. (We sometimes mistake them for jellyfish and eat them; then they block our gut and we starve. Talk about dying for a meal!) What with one thing and another, it's no wonder The People are in trouble.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not asking for charity. We're creatures of the sea. You're land animals. We ought to be able to co-exist. The People just need to keep a few beachheads in your world, a handful of gently-sloping subtropical and tropical beaches. Is that too much to ask? After all, we're part of your world's living heritage. As individuals we can live for a century or more. There are green turtles alive today who hatched from eggs laid when three-masted sailing ships were still a common sight in San Francisco harbor. That's pretty remarkable in itself, but as a species we've been around much, much longer: one hundred and eighty million years, give or take the odd epoch.

Of course that's ancient history, isn't it? The future's a lot less certain. Will this century see the last of The People die? That's up to you.


At last! The moon is almost down. It will be daylight soon. My work is done. It's time I went back to the sea. Back to my home. My children's lives are in your hands now.

Many thanks to Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., Director of the WiLDCOAST International Conservation Team, for his help in preparing this article. WiLDCOAST's campaign to preserve the last coastal wildlands of the Californias is in every paddler's — and every sea turtle's — interest. To learn more, go to WiLDCOAST.NET.

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