A Night with Turtles

Photo credit: Stephen Wiley (2013)
Photo credit: Stephen Wiley (2013)

Every year my family goes to the beach near Karachi, for a week of rest and escape. We stay in a small and rustic beach hut with weathered and peeling blue and white paint. Away from the phone and doorbell, this week is a time for my parents to kickback, relax, and mostly to read. In the past, for us kids it has been almost a week of non-stop digging in the sand and getting seriously browned – or just sunburned. This year it was the first time, since my high school graduation, that I was able to join our family beach week. And though my sister couldn’t be with us this time, my brother and I did manage to keep ourselves busy.

Our very first night at the the hut, my brother, my dad and I decided we would take a walk after dark, up along the beach, to enjoy the waves and the stars, and hopefully to see some sea turtles. At this time of year female sea turtles, laden with eggs, will make their way out of the water, up onto the sand, and dig a nest for the eggs. With their strong flippers they will scoop sand out from around them till they are deep enough to lay their precious cargo.

As we made out way along the beach that night, we came across turtle after turtle (close to a dozen), coming up from the dark ocean. Some halfway up the sand, others having just made their way out of the the water. Each time my dad would tell us to be quiet and coax us past, trying not to scare them. And each time my brother and I would be desperate to stay and catch a better look at the turtles up close.

With sea turtles, it’s important to make sure you don’t scare the females as they come up to make their nests. Tired and heavy, the last thing they need is to be scared back into the ocean. We always try to stay out of their way until the eggs are laid, and only after they begin their trip back into the water, do we try to get close to them. When we made it back to the hut again, my brother and I decided to stay out, quietly watching two turtles nearby, only a few huts apart from each other. A couple times we had to throw stones, as the dark shapes of dogs moved along the sand, some below us toward the water, and others up further, almost attacking on of the poor mother turtles as she dug her nest. Each time, the turtle would move a few meters from where she had been been, frightened by the dogs, and would begin digging again in the new spot.

Back and forth, my brother and I would patrol, toward to the water, making sure the dogs stayed far away from both turtles. It was just after checking on one of the mothers that a dark mass further down the beach caught our attention. We stood, and squatted, trying to see in the moonless night. Between the black bunches of seaweed on the shore, we could see the silhouette of a head and shell, making its way down toward the water. Quietly we walked up, standing close behind it on either side. Softly we ran our hands along its large smooth shell — such a contrast to the small shells of the newborns, with their minute ridges. We felt the mother’s large flippers as well, thick and leathery beneath our fingers, whispering to each other in excitement as we followed her along. I wanted so badly to swim in with her — to see her in the water, but in the dark and with the water being so cold, going in deep seemed pointless. Instead we walked with her, resting our hands on her shell.

Soon we reached the wet sand, where the little waves washing up onto the sand began to catch the turtle’s body, pulling her as they washed in and out. Her slow and steady crawl continued as the water swirled its way around her. And then there was a moment — with one wave carrying a little more water than the last — where her body rose slightly, and her thick front flippers found the room they needed to swim. When a turtle gets into water, one quickly learns the difference between bodies made for the ocean and bodies made for the land.

My brother and I splashed into the dark surf, trying to keep our hands on her shell. But after that single moment, there was nothing holding her back. In seconds her dark, glossy shell disappeared beneath the surf and she was gone, leaving two boys grinning at each other in the dark, knee-deep in the water.