The moon is full and the beach is bathed in white light. It is wide and long, easily a twenty minute walk from one end to the other. A light breeze has the feint taste of brine.
Book ended by dark volcanic cliffs, a very mellow surf drifts ashore in a clear sheet of water. Farther out, the water is dark and silvery. The serene scene is so subtle with beauty it could be a dream. Everyone grows quiet in deference to the temple.
The glory begins almost immediately. Our guide finds a nest on the cappuccino sand where hatchling turtles are already emerging and heading in a disorganized crowd toward the surf. If turtles could waddle, they are waddling. It is certainly not walking, more like ‘swimming’ on sand.
I’m shocked, though, to see our guide plunge her hands into the soft sand around the emerging turtles. She’s pulling and digging out turtles like prizes out of a Cracker Jack box. I thought we were not supposed to touch the turtles, and that this would be a take-only-pictures and leave-only-footprints kind of wildlife experience.
But I guess she is a kind of a turtle midwife. I figure she is not hurting them, and the turtles in general need all the help they can get. Once she extracts them from the nest, she places them on the sand with their heads pointed toward the water. They start waddling toward it straight away.
A few guards wander the beach too, with their rifles at their sides. One guard has to be asked by our guide to turn off his powerful white flashlight as it clearly starts attracting a clutch of turtles away from the water. She chastises him slightly and spins the few temporarily confused turtles 180 degrees so that they are now facing the water. Off they go.
Soon our group breaks into smaller groups as we wander the beach shining our red lights here and there on the sand. There are no indentations and few obvious markers of nests.
There are occasional whole areas that look like small black pebbles scattered on the sand. On much closer inspection they are scarab-like beetles feasting on the egg shells left behind by the hatched turtles. There is no waste in nature. The slow movement of the bugs on the sand in the half light is nevertheless somewhat grotesque and sinister.
Off from the crowd, my little red light and I find something near where the placid La Flor River quietly washes into the bay. The earth smells heavy with nutrients.
There’s barely an indentation in the flat swath of playa, but what’s that? Something dark there, looks like a seed or burnt wood chip. I look closer and it is a head, bird-like, and no bigger than a thimble. A few grains of sand stick to it, one near its black reptilian eye. It is the only thing above the surface poking out. It does not really look alive.
Then it moves, and then a flipper starts to push through nearby. More heads, more flippers, a back – an oval shell with scalloped, primeval ridges.
The excitement overcomes me. I am giddy. This is life unfolding before my eyes. Driven by a powerful force we cannot see or touch; a precarious promise to the energy that binds us all together.
The turtles emerge in a scrum-like scramble. They push and climb on each other. I decide not to touch them at all, and let them slowly struggle out. Maybe it is important for them to do this on their own, toughen them up a little because it is not going to get any easier.
An unruly line forms mostly aimed to the sea. I am surprised but okay with not seeing any birds swooping in and snatching the hatchlings.
I choose one turtle and decide to accompany it all the way on its journey from sandy bunker to water. It moves with great effort across the sand using flippers made for the seas. It takes two “steps”, pauses, then two more. It repeats this over and over and slowly makes progress. Turtle time.
When the turtle reaches the wet, pavement-like sand at the water’s edge, the turtle is on the brink. The next wave reaches for the turtle but it is still too far away. The turtle moves forward. My big white feet look incongruous next to the dark creature making its way. The water is warm but not too warm.
I gaze at the dark and shimmering water and wonder how many hungry predators are circling the depths. In my peripheral I notice our guide is standing near me. Most of the tour group is sitting on the upper beach and they are ready to go. She has come to fetch me but she says nothing. She lets me savor turtle time.
The next wave finally glides over the turtle with barely any force but enough to push the turtle back. It has come this far and is not about to give up. It straightens itself and paddles on the sand to regain the lost ground.
Another wave comes and the turtle's flippers flutter rapidly doing what they were designed to do. The turtle is swimming. Another wave comes and the turtle is gone, on its way. I feel like cheering aloud but do not want to break the trance.
With me as the straggler, the group makes its way back up through the palm tree grove and past the guard house. We climb back onto the makeshift bus with a fresh outlook. People are talking and laughing now. I thought someone might pass around a bottle of Flor de Cana and we’d all break into some boisterous song about Tortuga. The full moon gaily follows us home.