#15 Turtle Release

Wherever you are in the world there is often a uniqueness to that location.  The Dallas – Fort Worth area presents sporting events, amazing barbecue and cowtown rodeos.  New York offers Broadway shows, sightseeing of some of the most iconic structures in the world and fall in the Catskills.  In Los Angeles you can dip your toes in the Pacific and hope for a “star spotting” at the Topanga Vintage Market. Dig into deep dish pizza in Chicago then have your photo taken next to the famous Millennium Park “Bean”.  Knoxville provides access to the magnificent beauty that can only be found in the Great Smoky Mountains. Regardless of where you visit or reside, it’s these distinctive experiences that keep you appreciating each location.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtles nest along the shores of San Carlos. Females can lay 1-3 clutches of 80 – 120 eggs during a 30 day period during the late summer months. Currently only one in one thousand of these turtles make it to adulthood.

San Carlos offers its own golden experience in the form of sea turtle releases.  Over the late summer I began to notice areas along the beach marked off with PVC poles, metal netting and wrapped in bright yellow CAUTION – KEEP OUT tape to secure the structure.  At closer glance I found each had a laminated posting from the organization, Centro de Rescate, Rehabilitación y Investigación de Fauna Silvestre (CRRIFS) which translates in English to Wildlife Rescue, Rehabilitation and Research Center. CRRIFS is a non-profit, with the goal to rescue wild animals from “risky” situations.  The notices warn people to stay away from the nests to allow the Olive Ridley turtles to develop in the protected area created by the PVC “cage”. The sign also made it very clear that disturbing a turtle nest is a federal offense. This species of sea turtles are considered a vulnerable species due to their decreasing population.

So what do you do when you see a notice like that?  STAY CLEAR! Until you don’t.

A few weeks ago walking along the beach I saw PVC poles stuck into the sand near the water’s edge well in front of a marked turtle nest.  A group of people in neon green shirts were surrounding a nest. That sent a clear message to go see what was happening! Inside the nest, three tiny sea turtles covered in sand were moving around like small toys.  The green shirted volunteers known as the “Turtle Team” were keeping a close eye on the little guys. I was told that the nest was located in a risky spot on the beach. Many of the turtles would not make it to the Sea of Cortez alive unless they had a little help from their human friends.  Sign me up! As I watched the creatures tumble in the sand I learned that the volunteers planned to pick them up in gloved hands and move them a little closer to the water where the poles had been embedded in the sand. This would allow the turtles to make their way across the sand and into the sea without the risk of becoming exhausted or eaten by birds swooping overhead.  Twenty-seven hatchlings had already made their way out of their eggs, into the hands of Turtle Team members and into the sea. The three I was observing were numbers 28, 29 and 30 and they were almost ready for a bit of help. A volunteer then asked if I’d like to walk a turtle down to the safe area. Would I? Who wouldn’t?

In my blue gloved hand I held the small squirming turtle carefully.  I walked across the sand with the tiny treasure and gently placed him back on the sand near the water’s edge.  He instantly began to advance toward the water scaling over tiny rocks that must have seemed like boulders to his tiny flippered legs.  At that point the volunteer must have noticed the childlike quality of my smile and she asked, “Is this your first turtle release?” I had a flashing thought of, you mean this happens often, before I answered, “Yes.”  She continued, “Well then, you have to name your turtle.” Instantly I recalled a character from the animated movie, Up.  In the story a unique, highly endangered, gigantic, tropical bird, is being sought after by a bad guy.  The bird ends up being rescued by an interesting and diverse group of beings consisting of Carl, the elderly man, a Boy Scout named Russell and a golden retriever known as Dug.  Before you shut me down with the bird is a fictional character, there are multiple parallels between the Pixar bird and this pocket sized reptile inching ever closer toward the salt water.  Both are tropical, unique and on the brink of extinction. Both are preyed upon by things out of their control. Both are in need of help that just happens to come in the form of humans just trying to do something kind for another species.  And, more importantly, both are now named Kevin.

As Kevin was tossed by the waves and teaching himself how to rise to the surface for a breath I couldn’t help but feel a bit proud of his efforts.  Every few seconds a tiny gray head would pop above the water letting me know he was OK. Well, maybe not but I like to imagine he was looking back at me with some sort of motherly love.

A few days after the release of Kevin I was contacted about a “mass release”.  I learned that the marine biologist in charge of sea turtle research in the area has permission to physically move turtle nests located in areas of major risk.  These nests are kept in an undisclosed location until the turtles emerge from their spherical homes. Once they are ready, the hatchlings are brought in coolers and boxes to the beach for release at sundown.  There is short notice for this event but those “in the know” spread the word quickly.

When my friend and I arrived at the spot on the beach, there was a flurry of activity.  People of all ages, genders, interest levels and turtle expertise continued to flow onto the sandy area over the next few minutes.  Behind the activity a rainbow appeared directly over a former nesting area. Was this a sign of good luck for the babies about to waddle into the next chapter of their lives?  One “Turtle Team” volunteer arrived with a styrofoam cooler filled with 62 wiggly, sand dusted, baby turtles clamoring to get out of their bright white surroundings. These babies were originally from a nest laid on September 21st.  Days after they were safe in the sand, Hurricane Lorena approached the Sea of Cortez causing their nesting sight to become at risk. The heavy rains compacted the sand above the developing creatures potentially making it impossible for the turtles to dig their way out upon hatching.  If left in that location many would have died from pure exhaustion before breaking the surface of the sand. 

Volunteers arrived bringing with them several more boxes and cooler filled with over 100 additional newborn Olive Ridleys.  As sundown approached children were given blue gloves and asked to kneel on the sand at the edge of the safe area. One by one they were handed turtles to release.  In mass the babies marched toward the sea.

Meanwhile, Turtle Team volunteers vigilantly watched to make sure the path was clear and tiny turtles did not wash ashore before they could make it further into the water.  One volunteer stood perfectly still in knee deep waves holding a steady flashlight simulating moonlight on the horizon of the water.

One by one 100 plus miniature Kevins wobbled into the sea and into their new underwater world.  Nature is really something. It might not be a visit to Lady Liberty’s torch, lunch at the Santa Monica Pier or a kick off at Jerry’s World AT&T Stadium but the turtle release was undoubtedly a moment in time to remember.  And will I keep returning? ¡Por supuesto!

November 14, 2019

“Just keep swimming.”

– Dory, Finding Nemo

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