Baobabs, Leatherbacks, and You
Maybe I won’t have to see him again. Maybe I can spend every night with the turtles, and sleep in the day.
I am in St Croix for the baobabs.
I know so much about them I sometimes forget that I’ve never seen one in real life. I am dying to see one, to glimpse in person something I’ve been researching for so long. I’ve spent so many hours combing through articles about the tree. Articles about the medicinal uses of its leaves, about the nutritional powder made from crushing the seeds, and of course the insects. That is why I study it, for the insects. The cotton-stainer that breeds on the tree before decimating a whole country’s crops, or the bees who build nests in its hollows. In India and Africa the baobab dominates the landscape. It serves as an oasis in the dusty, dry plains.
I once read about one in South Africa that had been hollowed out to make a bar— though it makes me sad to think of killing a tree just so that Afrikaners can get drunk in a novelty.
I am in St. Croix for the baobabs, but I spend most of my time with the leatherbacks.
We don’t have a car, and the baobabs are hard to get to. They are miles away, and Allan won’t help me. He is content to sit at the beachside hotel. Being selfish. It is what he does.
I should not have met him here. I know it was a mistake, but I listened to bad advice and I get on a plane, and here I am. I don’t listen to the good advice.
At the hotel we meet the kids from Earth Watch. One dedicated German and six spoiled Americans. The German is the paid employee, desperately trying to save the leatherbacks from extinction. The Americans are volunteers, who’ve signed up for the project because they want free room and board. They think they’ll get a lot of time on the islands to scuba dive. They seem silly and plastic and bored. I want to kill them. I’ve paid my way, fighting for grants and money to get here, and they are blowing it all off.
Sea turtles come back to their native beach to nest. Sometimes the whole of a species nests in one small area. When that same beach suffers from over-development, it can decimate a population. When the mother turtles nest, the German finds the spots, and digs out all the eggs in a nest. He keeps them in coolers in a spare hotel room. Spongy, ping pong ball looking things, in a room crowded with dozens of cheap, white Styrofoam coolers. After they hatch he releases them on the shore, on a dark spot to ensure they won’t head toward the lights of civilization. The German asks if I’d like to help him that night. The other Americans are leaving at the end of the week and he tells them not to bother to come back.
He comes around midnight. I follow him, wearing a headlamp, across a windy dune. The sea oats and grasses sway in the moonlight. We turn off our lights before hitting the shoreline. The mother turtles are enormous. Large shadows laboring down the beach toward the water. We find some nests. He points out a depressed spot, and tells me to shove my arm in.
I kneel on the ground, pushing my arm through soft sand. The sand engulfs my wrist, then my elbow, then my upper arm. I dive in to the shoulder. I feel the soft pliant eggs with my fingertips. He says to bring them up, I grab one at a time and we count.
We stop at seventy-two. We don’t want to leave any eggs behind. I push my hand around underground, searching. It seems empty. I hope it's empty. We walk down the beach and repeat the process. Again and again. Nest after nest. Egg after egg. I hold one whole night’s generation of a species.
After clearing all the nests we need to release the hatchlings. We take the eggs and the data back to the hotel room. The German puts away his notations, and searches through the coolers for newly hatched turtles. You can do it blindfolded, because it’s not a sight it’s a sound. The sound of hundreds of tiny turtle feet on Styrofoam.
We open a cooler. It’s like being in the presence of miniature dinosaurs: so solid, so functional, so evolved. A hard carapace and a streamlined body but still a newborn. An adorable newborn, with tiny features and wiggling, digging, swimming flippers in constant motion. To hold it is to grasp something both fragile and solid at the same time. I pick up one hatchling and its small arms press against my hand as it desperately seeks the sea. We carry three coolers back to the ocean.
At the shore we gently place them on the sand, one turtle at a time. Without hesitation they move along the dark beach to the water. They spread out across the beach, leaving faint lines in the sand that are then washed away by the waves.
I finish with the German. We place our headlamps on our heads and begin to walk back to the hotel. The wind builds up making it easy to stay silent. I say goodnight and ask if I can come back the next night. The German says yes. I look over at Allan’s room and see the lights are out. Maybe I won’t have to see him again. Maybe I can spend every night with the turtles, and sleep in the day. Then I won’t have to be present to watch our relationship end. I think I’d prefer it that way.