Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Giant Leatherback in 'The Last Wave - an island novel'

THE LAST WAVE - an island novel

Chapter 22
Nesting Turtles
Pg 256-258

...‘Keep your distance or you’ll spook her,’ Harish whispered to Seema just as she was thinking of walking up to the animal. ‘This,’ he said, in a voice full of reverence and awe, ‘is what we came here for – the Giant Leatherback turtle, one of the greatest travellers of the world’s oceans, the gentlest giant if there ever was one and amongst the most vulnerable.’

Seema watched intently as the turtle dragged herself a couple of feet and stopped for rest. She was panting heavily. With every bit of air she inhaled, the bottom of her neck swelled like a small balloon. She exhaled, an equally laborious process, and then inhaled again. Then her whole body, nearly 400 kilograms of marine muscle, shuddered as the front flippers came into action. She dragged her body a couple of feet more and then stopped again to rest. ‘What effort,’ Seema thought to herself. She remembered seeing on the National Geographic, just a couple of weeks ago, an underwater film on corals that had some significant turtle sequences as well. The camera had followed a green sea turtle gliding gracefully and effortlessly amidst the incredible shapes and colours of that beautiful coral garden. To now see another turtle struggling so on land was a jolt. The turtle, however, was here of her own volition, the immutability of her instinct, of the timeless process of evolution. She was here to lay her eggs, she had to undergo this labour – she had no choice.

Three quarters of an hour of laborious digging, now with her rear flippers, created a perfect excavation, a cylindrical hole about a foot and a half deep. She then positioned herself on top of the nest hole and readied herself. Harish shone the light of his torch into the nest as the eggs started to pop out in a continuous succession. Sparklingly white, perfectly spherical, a little smaller than a tennis ball. Coated in a sticky, slimy fluid, they fell slowly in ones and twos. Winbrite and his team had also arrived, careful to approach from behind and not anywhere in the line of sight of the huge creature. An error here and she’d be spooked; all the labour wasted as she followed her instinct and returned to the safety of the sea, her eggs unlaid.

The team were an experienced lot. As the eggs began to fall, one of them sprawled on the sand, stomach down. He stuck his hand into the nest and began to bring out the eggs. These were then carted away immediately to the fenced hatchery further up the beach, where they were laid back into pits similar to the one the turtle had excavated. This had to be done to protect the eggs from being poached, particularly by the feral dogs that had proliferated here in recent years. By the time the turtle had finished laying all her eggs – a total of 101 – Winbrite’s team had successfully carried all the eggs away, to a safer place.

Unaware of the benevolent designs of the people standing behind her, the turtle began the reverse process. Using her rear flippers, she began to pull sand back into the nest hole that should have held the eggs. The nest hole filled up in a few minutes and then she began her laborious crawl back towards the ocean, leaving her eggs to their fate. This is where the sea turtle was different from the crocodile. It was not in her code to be the protective, aggressive mother. She’d done the best she could, and the rest was to be left to nature and the elements.

So far, Seema had been completely engrossed in the activity of the turtle. She had taken notice of every flick of the flippers, every breath, every single groan that emitted from somewhere deep within the creature. Now, as the turtle headed back, Seema was overwhelmed. She stood for a moment, tilted her head up a little to look at the sparkling sky, opened her arms to embrace the heavens above and took a deep breath, then another, and yet another. On this remote beach of soft white sand, on this magnificent, mysterious night, she had just had a rare privilege. An ancient creature, the renewal of life, an extraordinary event; she was grateful to be alive.

‘Seema,’ Harish’s voice came wafting through the moist breeze, from the direction in which the turtle had just headed. ‘Come here quickly.’

She trotted across to a point just above the waterline, where the ocean waves thrashed tirelessly at the bottom of the beach. At the water’s edge here, the turtle had sensed that extra bit of moistness in the sand below her. This seemed to bring additional life into the tired body – very much the traveller who was now in sight of her destination. She waited for the next offering from home, another gently lapping wave that just about reached her neck. It was precisely the vitalizer she needed. There was extra energy in those tired flippers as she vigorously hauled herself down the final gentle slope. She’d covered a few feet by the time the next wave came in. Her pace quickened, aided perhaps by the fact that she was now on sand that had gone soft and gooey with the water that was churning underneath her. She was completely engulfed even as this wave withdrew, and was much deeper in the water by the time the next one came along. Harish and Seema walked as far as they could into the water, trying to keep pace with the turtle, holding hands to keep their own balance in the midst of the tireless waves. Finally, they could go no further. They stood silently, watching the retreating hump of the turtle’s wet back as it glistened in the white light of the soft moon. Then she was gone.

The Giant Leatherback leaves behind her flipper marks as she returns to the ocean after nesting

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