CONGRATULATIONS TO ALEX RUDEE FOR WINNING OUR 2018 SHORT STORY CONTEST
Alex’s story, Turtle Patrol, will be published in Eno Magazine’s 7th edition due out April 2018. You can also read the winning story below.
Darkness had fallen over the Osa Peninsula hours ago. The dinner dishes had been cleared, and several rounds of cards had been dealt before we pulled on our boots, switched on our headlamps, and marched into the jungle. It was time for turtle patrol.
I followed behind Patricia, a turtle program assistant at the research station where I was staying. Cody, a fellow volunteer, led the way. For 20 minutes we tramped through the black jungle, our arms outstretched to feel for spiderwebs in our path. Sweat, never a stranger in the Costa Rican rainforest, began to gather on my brow.
We emerged onto a single-track dirt road that wound through forest and pastures. In the glow of our headlamps, the grass beneath our feet sparkled with a thousand points of light, mirroring the blanket of stars overhead. It was a beautiful sight—until I realized that the constellations in the grass were actually reflections off the eyes of a thousand wolf spiders watching us pass.
At last, we cut off the dirt road, climbed under a barbed-wire livestock fence, and found ourselves on Pejeperro beach. Headlamps clicked off (the moon was more than bright enough to lead our way) and we set off down the shoreline in search of nesting turtles.
While Patricia and Cody traced this route nearly every day, my volunteer work on the Osa Peninsula had mostly involved camera trap monitoring for a wildcat population study. Turtle patrol for me was more of an extracurricular—a chance to see another conservation program in action. But this would be my fourth patrol, and still I hadn’t seen a single turtle.
We’d been walking the beach for 10 minutes when we spied turtle tracks, a rippling line in the sand where a four-foot sea turtle had pulled herself out of the waves. But there were two sets of tracks here: this one had already come and gone. We followed the tracks up toward the treeline, where Patricia detected other, smaller tracks leading back the other way. Hatchlings. We had found a nest.
Patricia pulled on latex gloves and began digging in the sand to evaluate the nest’s condition. A pile of soft, empty eggshells grew beside her pile of sand. And then… The sand moved, wiggled, and a tiny turtle head poked through. Before long the hatchling was free, crawling clumsily around on the sand between us. Soon, we unearthed four of her brothers and sisters.
These were Pacific green turtles, among the largest of the seven species of sea turtle that roam the world’s oceans. Green turtle populations have dwindled in recent decades thanks to poaching, mortality from fishnets and boats, and expanding beachside development near nesting habitat. They are now an endangered species, making it imperative that the turtles are monitored and protected wherever they come ashore to nest. Tonight, we were their protectors.
While Patricia continued to excavate the nest, Cody and I shepherded the five hatchlings down to the treeline for their first rite of passage: crawling to the ocean.
“Watch out for crabs,” Cody told me as I crouched over my three hatchlings like a proud father. “They’re super quick and will grab the hatchlings like that”—he snapped his fingers.
Duly warned, I did my best to watch over my charges wriggling down the beach by the dim red glare of my headlamp. (White light could confuse or frighten the turtles, but they can’t see red.) Cody’s hatchlings were far ahead of mine, already in the surf. I heard a big wave crash, and then a shout.
In the faint moonlight, I saw Cody fallen over in the waves, drenched from head to toe. I found out later that he had dived to rescue a hatchling from a lightning-quick crab. But my first thought was of riptides—this beach was notorious for them. I was too far to lend a hand, but I watched Cody get up until I was sure he wouldn’t be dragged under. Then I turned back to my hatchlings. They were gone.
I don’t know any feeling more sickening than failing to keep defenseless baby turtles safe on their way to the sea. I ran back and forth across the sand, chasing every dark shape until I was no longer sure where I had started. The hatchlings had disappeared on my watch.
Despairing, I climbed back through the vegetation to check on Patricia’s progress with the nest. Only giant piles of sand and eggshells remained.
But then, amazingly, mercifully, another scaly head poked through the sand. And another. Blessed with a second chance, I carried #6 and #7 down to the sand. The crabs would get zero chances to snag a snack this time around.
Slowly but surely, #6 and #7 flippered their way toward the surf, as I hovered as close behind as I could manage. A wave rolled in, filling my boots with seawater—I couldn’t have cared less—and when it receded, only smooth sand remained. The hatchlings were out to sea, and I whooped for joy.
No sooner had I walked back up the beach than hatchling #8 was entrusted to my care, and then #9 and #10. They kept coming, until finally Patricia reached the limits of the nest. By then we had released 18 hatchlings. Judging by the pile of eggshells at Patricia’s side, 100 of their siblings had made the seaward trek on their own.
After all the lobbying, lawsuits and letter writing, saving species often comes down to a few volunteers hiking 10 miles in the middle of the night through spidery jungles and desolate stretches of sand, all to watch over a brood of hatchlings as they scatter across a crab-filled beach. Being a foot soldier for conservation is all blood, sweat and tears.
But for the sight of a newborn turtle following in the flipperprints of its mother under the bright Costa Rican moon, it’s a price I would pay a thousand times.
Photo by: Alex Rudee