“When are you going home?”

The choices I’ve made over the past few years have inspired endless repetitions of this question.

I love every ecosystem where life has taken me in my own fond way. But every now and then, I feel guilty over my cycle of loving, packing, and leaving.

In those moments, I am consoled by the sea turtles—for they have made their peace with home.

Many wouldn’t know. Of the sea creatures that we deign withour enthusiasm, sea turtles are quite lower than the dolphins. With all their appearances as, frankly, ornery creatures in algae-crusted classroom tanks, we barely comprehend their role in the underwater kingdom. But they have journeyed far too long to be misunderstood as cute, lone cowboys in wild oceanic ranges.

A few months ago, I found myself at a weekend-long turtle monitoring session on Honduras’ southern coast. From childhood trips to a local aquarium to participating in an oceanography-themed Quiz Bowl to being afraid of swimming, the sea’s wonders and unknowns have long captivated me. So I already knew that nearly all of the world’s seven sea turtles species (loggerheads, olive ridleys, and hawksbills, to name a few) are endangered, leading Honduras to place a month-long moratorium on collecting turtle eggs.

Sea turtles only return to the place of their birth when they are due to give birth. For the rest of their life, they bridge worlds for thousands, even tens of thousands of miles: the Arctic Circle to Indonesia, Angola to Australia, Yucatan to Spain. But don’t pity them for not being settled. As loggerheads venture on interoceanic highways, encrusted with as many as 100 different species of barnacles and crabs, they provide ample space for others to belong. And as olive ridley sea turtles sunbathe, they simultaneously provide a sunny perch for gossiping seabirds and a protective shield for nervous schools of fish seeking refuge.

Despite my prior knowledge, I didn’t expect to be so moved that night as I huddled with people I didn’t know on an abandoned beach. We watched in silence and darkness and were rewarded as the hundred-pound yet majestic creatures ventured ashore.

That weekend, they laid over seven hundred eggs that hatched some forty-five days later.  Every turtle’s first waking moments are a fight for survival as they scurry into ocean waters before predators find them. If loggerhead young ones are fortunate to be one of the estimated 1 in 1,000 to 4,000 that evade threats, they begin a several-year pilgrimage from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, journeying close to the West African coast before returning to the Americas.

Until recently, we thought that sea turtles simply carpooled on the major currents. But now we know that as little ones, they strategically steer their way through vast ocean expanses using the earth’s magnetic field, shuffling flippers in key moments and coasting in others. Maybe most amazing of all, they memorize the “magnetic coastline” of their birth site, allowing them to return years later to give birth. On the grueling journey, the now young adult turtle does not return home empty-handed. Instead, it brings crustaceans, plants, and other nutrients from its “distant and dispersed foraging” that enriches the nutrient-poor beaches it once left behind. The home carried on its back becomes just as key not only to its story, but also to the ecosystem, as the place it was born. So while I don’t know when I’ll be back home, wherever that is, I do hope that I return with a grace and generosity, like the sea turtles.

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    Such a beautiful metaphor! Love thinking about caring home with me and being gracious wherever I go. And learning more about turtles (or anything, really) is always a bonus.

    Reply

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