the miracle of baby sea turtles

a few weeks ago, max and i were on oak island, in north carolina (where i was speaking at a great camp). the shoreline of the island is a sea turtle sanctuary, and there are signs posted about the stiff penalties for messing with the turtles or their nests.

we had a rare opportunity to see two baby sea turtles make their trek across the beach to the ocean. it was an experience of god’s creation max and i will never forget.

a little background info (which we got from the turtle rescue peeps who were present):
– mom sea turtles come on shore in the middle of the night, dig a hole in the sand, and lay their eggs — dozens of them. then mom buries the “nest” and crawls back to the sea.
– the babies have a 1 in 1000 chance of making it to the ocean. even if they hatch, and do so at a time when others are also hatching (which, collectively, gives them the ability to dig up through the sand to the surface), foxes and other predators really like them some baby turtle num-nums. and, even if the baby turtles make it up and don’t get munched, they can easily get lost, head the wrong direction, and not make it.
– once the boy babies make it to the sea, they will never again set foot on land. the girl babies will only set foot (or flipper) on sand again if they make it back to lay eggs. but only 1 in 10,000 make it back to lay eggs.

so you can see why, with all of that up against them, it makes sense that there are volunteer “sea turtle rescue” folk who help the process along. they walk the beach every morning, looking for new nests (which they can find because of the track made by the mother). if the nest is still intact (and hasn’t already been assaulted by a fox or some other predator), the volunteers put a cage around it to protect it. every evening, other volunteers check the nests. and, after the appropriate gestation period, the volunteers assist the babies in making it to the sea.

now, they can’t just dig up the hatchlings, and carry them to the ocean. just as helping a butterfly out of its cocoon will rob it of the strength it needs for survival, baby sea turtles must make the trek to the ocean on their own. so the help the rescue people provide is in setting up a little runway of sorts — side rails to point the way, and smoothing out the sand. when max and i were watching, most of the eggs had already hatched, and the volunteers were doing their final step of digging up the nest, counting the hatched and unhatched eggs (which they report to some university), and seeing if there are any hatched babies who didn’t make it to the surface. they found two of these little ones when we were there, and set them at the beginning of the “runway”.

one of the little guys (or girls) got disoriented about halfway to the ocean, turned around, and started heading in the wrong direction. the volunteers explained that you can’t shine a light (or use a flash), as it will damage their eyes; but a red light will not hurt them, and they’ll head toward it (hmmm, baby bulls?). luckily, my little iphone flashlight app lets me change colors; so i set it for red, and the volunteer held it close to the sand on the ocean side of the disoriented hatchling. he quickly turned around and scurried in the right direction.

they are SO tiny — about 2 inches long. and they will get so freakin’ huge. watching them scuttle along the sand is an amazing snapshot of god-given instinct, fragility, and — particularly — persistency. it’s a little hard to describe why this would be so emotional to watch. the best word i can come up with for it is BEAUTY. it was not a significantly different feeling i have than when i have stood in front of the monet water lilies in paris, at the musee l’orangerie; or when i looked at my own perfect little babies; or when i stared into bryce canyon this past summer. there’s something about true beauty, in whatever its form or presentation, that both reflects god’s values and creativity, as well as connects with an image-of-god-part in me.

when the babies reached the smooth, wet part of the sand, they took off. they were already moving quickly (for their size). but with the scent of the ocean in their noses, they seriously busted a move. the remains of a wave, gliding with its last few inches of momentum, caught them in a half-inch of water. and their little flippers took off in hyper-swim mode, as if to say: this is what i was made for; even though i’ve never been here, i know this is my home.

i almost cried when they swam beyond my sight — propelled way more by the receding current than by any effort of their own. i swallowed hard, and wore and irrepressible smile on my face.

beyond the experience of seeing such a rare and stunning beauty, i think i connected with this experience for other reasons. you don’t have to look very deeply into this description to see all kinds of allegorical connections to our human experience. bottom line: i am that baby sea turtle over and over and over again.
i have so many natural predators.
i have so much opposition, and need help.
i can so easily get lost; and without others to help me dig out of the nest, i’m in trouble.
when i’m provided a runway, it sure is helpful, though i’m likely unaware of its provision.
i benefit from help, to be sure, but need to struggle myself if i’m ever going to learn and grow.
i can sense ‘home’ (my core identity, in christ, and joining up with the kingdom of god) when i’m close to it.
when i get caught in the trailing edge of the surf of the kingdom, i move more fully into my intentional design, whether i fully realize it or not.
when i’m in that zone, i usually think i’m mostly moving under my own locomotion, and am rarely fully aware of the “intentionality” of the surf.

anyhow. i have thought of those little sea turtle babies many times since i was given the gift of meeting them. helpless, really, but destined for a large and long existence of non-rushed swimming in the ocean. mmmmm. i want the kingdom-of-god allegorical equivalent of that.

6 thoughts on “the miracle of baby sea turtles”

  1. Marko,
    I watched a “hatching” on a show a few weeks ago and was in tears … just from seeing a video of this amazing event! Seeing the multitude of little turtles coming up out of the sand and tumbling all over each other to try to make it out … and then heading towards the sea. It was a crazy, deep-down response I had. So I can’t even imagine what it would be to see it up close in personal, rather than on a screen. Thanks for sharing and for putting some of the story together for the rest of us!

  2. Marko–

    I am just up the road from Oak Island in Wilmington, NC. My son’s class went out to watch a “dig” at Carolina Beach last year and we took the whole family. I was blown away. The fact that no one told these little guys which way to go, the fact that they were rushing, not meandering, toward the ocean and the obstacles they climbed (relative to their size) using their flippers made for swimming, not crawling all made me want to cry as well. I didn’t, because what guy cries watching turtles, but inside I was a slobbering, sobbing mess. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

  3. Marko,

    I was at SpiritUs, week 1, this year, and i can say that us campers truly enjoyed your speaking. And these turtles are a legend at Fort Caswell. Although many of us have never seen the turtles as you did, we fully understand that we must not interfere with their nests, and all of those rules. blah blah blah. But, I dont think we all understand the meaning they can have, as expressed above. So, thank you for sharing this, and helping another SpiritUs camper fully understand.

  4. very cool

    by the way…this makes absolutely no sense from a strict evolutionary/survival of the fittest standpoint (not that you were going there) but total sense from a God put us here as caretakers of the planet standpoint…in fact it’s just beautiful and if done to honor God it’s even worshipful

  5. Hmmm, what a great image to start my Friday. I’m a sea turtle fan, too, and can relate to the parallels you draw. We think we are so much bigger than we really are. Yet the beach spans out on all sides. The strength of will drives us on, and God’s direction guides us. And the open sea awaits, full of possibilities….

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