The one thing I wanted most was just a few minutes rest. Just to place my head down, close my eyes, and have a few minutes to rejuvenate, to get my energy back. It wasn’t that I wasn’t having a good time; in fact, this trip had been magical. My close friend and teaching colleague, Rhonda, had said months before, “If I win the Presidential Science Award, I’m using my winnings to take you, Amanda, and Dianne to Costa Rica for an ecotourism adventure!” She won and here we were! At age 45, this was my first trip outside the United States thanks to the generosity of a talented, generous friend. Two days before we had flown by prop plane from San Jose, the capital city, then boated by motorized canoe to our lodge that rested near the tiny village of Tortuguero, Spanish for Land of Turtles. Tortugeuro also adjoined the Tortuguero National Forest, which housed the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, in whose office I stood listening to a scientist tell us what to expect on our green sea turtle tagging expedition later that evening.
My mind drifted to two days earlier when we first arrived at our rustic lodge. I’m a country girl who grew up observing wildlife: squirrels and rabbits, deer and daddy long legs, crows and sparrows. Nothing, though, prepared me for the sights and sounds that embraced me like a huge enthusiastic hug that stopped my breath for just a moment. It was as if I had taken the little pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle of the rainforest, snapped in the last piece, and watched the puzzle come to life. I recognized all the parts of the whole from the puzzle pieces: the toucan, the parrot, the caiman, the lizard. But I had not anticipated the whole: the cacophony of cicadas, howler monkeys, and parakeets or the panorama of jewel toned frogs and the tropical blues, greens, and reds of birds everywhere. There I was in the middle of this colorful, completed living puzzle, completely enthralled, completely in awe.
That night began the first of the greater fatigue that was to come, though. The room was hot, despite the large ceiling fan and the screened windows. The air was moisture laden—it was a rainforest, after all—and I could feel the heaviness in my chest as if my occasional asthma was about to return. Just before we turned off the lights, I spotted a huge spider on the ceiling and realized there were likely more. I covered myself with the thin sheet and finally settled into an uneasy sleep with the sounds of nature engulfing my semi-consciousness. A few hours later, I awoke to the fervored drumming of rain on the tin roof, amazed that the forest animals had grown silent as the rain had her moment as the main attraction. But as soon as she stopped, the voices of the forest began again. First the howler monkeys roared their wakeup call, then the parrots chimed their raucous good morning, and finally the din and song of all the other animals erupted until the daybreak symphony was in full progress.
Later that day, we took a walk in the forest with a guide directing us to the flora and fauna. As we stopped in a group to look at a brightly colored bloom, I happened to glance over my right shoulder only to look into the eyes of a tiny red snake also looking over my right shoulder. I slowly stepped forward; the snake curled itself back to the tree from which it clung.” You were so calm!” Amanda said to me. No, I was just too tired to scream. I didn’t want to miss a moment of this trip with my friends, but the combination of the stimuli of my new surroundings and my lack of sleep had finally caught up with me.
So, on this night in this small room, a lab, I forced myself to focus on what the research biologist was saying. Soon we would accompany him on his nightly patrol to look for nesting green sea turtles and to record data. The green sea turtle, this ancient species that lived in the time of
dinosaurs, is endangered, but this very beach was a major nesting ground where the turtles returned to lay their eggs every couple of years after traveling for thousands of miles in the ocean. Our instructions had been clear: Wear dark clothing and do not use a light of any kind. Our voices would not disturb the turtles coming ashore, but light would, making the turtles turn back to the ocean and laying their eggs there only to be eaten by predators.
The beach was dark except for the light of the moon, and quiet, except for the pounding waves. Shaded in blacks, grays, and silvery light, it presented such a surreal contrast from the daytime rainforest with its vivid color. I had already experienced another world this week, and here was yet another. My friends walked ahead with the scientist who held a large metal caliper for measuring the turtle. I heard one of them ask him, “Are there any animals in this brush?”
“Just jaguars,” the biologist responded, “but they won’t bother you.”
He trotted ahead of us and came back a few minutes later, excited.
“A turtle is digging her nest right now. Hurry!”
We headed toward the brush away from the shoreline, and in the moonlight, we could make out the outline of this giant turtle using her flippers to dig a deep hole for her eggs.
“We’re not bothering her?” Rhonda asked.
“Not at this point,” he responded. “She’s in a trance-like state and will be until she’s through. Now, I need someone to count the eggs.”
Dianne volunteered and he gave her a counter and quick instructions: Lie here and place your hand under her, catch each egg in your hand and release it. Use the counter each time.
Dianne quickly began her job and just as quickly said, “I need someone to hold her flipper out of the way so I can do this.”
The flipper holder was I.
I crouched down and held the flipper the way I was instructed, only to realize that my body was in the most awkward, uncomfortable position. So as agilely as I could and disregarding the fact that there were jaguars in the brush, I stretched my legs out behind me so I could lie flat on my stomach. Only I didn’t, because as I stretched out my legs, my upper body pitched forward and partially slid into the hole the turtle had dug. Still holding her flipper, I realized that my check was resting on her smooth, cool carapace. Just for a few minutes, I closed my eyes and rested.
Soon, she would be through laying her eggs. The scientist would have tagged and measured her. The number of eggs she laid would be recorded. We four friends would quickly stand away from her while she would furiously use her flippers to cover her eggs with sand. Sand would fly, stinging our legs, and we would watch in amazement as she headed back to the sea to swim for thousands of miles—and we hoped for her species, for thousands of years. Rhonda, Amanda, Dianne and I would walk, then run, laughing, drenched by a new rain until we reached the lab. For a short time on this darkened beach, we would be young girls again united in our friendship and by the women we would become, forgetting our traumas of the past, and at least for me, blissfully unaware of traumas yet to come.
But for these few moments, I listened to the sea turtle’s labored breath and allowed her mystery to envelop me: this ancient symbol of motherhood and Mother Earth, and like the ancient legend spoke, her shell the heaven, and her underside, the earth, while I, a child again for just a short while, rested in safety. I silently thanked her for granting my wish for a few moments rest, and I took comfort in her measured breathing, the splashing of the waves, and my own heartbeat— this continuous rhythm, primal and real, the whole world on turtle’s back.