An Akumal Homecoming For The Giant Sea Turtle

sea turtle in sea grass near Akumal, Mexico
Some say that I am a symbol of old age and wisdom, others speak my name in description of slow speeds, however, I like to view myself as a peaceful traveler and a story-teller of the mother ocean. I pass my every day moving from place to place, grazing on sea grasses, and watching my world pass me by. Relations with my aquatic brethren, from the mobile, swimming sorts to the immobile, structural reef creatures, fill my travels with knowledge and respect for all forms of sea life. Interactions with the larger-than-life blue whales impart to me humility, while exchanges with the minute grass shrimp remind me that every square foot of this ocean floor is an interactive ecosystem. Pelagic and wandering, I spend my life exploring and taking in the sites.

It is a really great life. The currents of the sea guide me along my yearly migratory path. I can choose to flow with them, or I can choose my own path. I am in control of my destiny. I spend my winter months feeding and resting while passing by some beautiful stretches of ocean floor. I know it sounds sort of boring, but springtime is when all my fun starts. My old biological clock, the one that has kept perfect time since I was about 20 to 25 years old, always wakes me out of my lazy floating, eating, and sleeping life. I know that the beach of my birth is calling to me once again. From whatever corner of the world I have ventured to this year, I begin my journey home.

What is home to a turtle? Well, this is one of those mysteries that only us turtles can explain. We just know. Out of every stretch of beach, every coastline, and every country, a turtle will return to the very same beach he or she crawled off of when just a wee little hatchling. Maybe it is some sort of foolishness, but us turtles believe in the importance of roots. Each lineage has their place in the world…each family’s ancestors chose their beach…my roots are true to Akumal. My heritage links me to the ancient Maya who named this wondrous place, “the place of the turtle.” My ancestors chose this area as our nesting ground due to the significant impact good people had upon our growth and reproduction.

We had quite a special relationship to the ancient Maya, actually playing a part in their story of creation! When the hero twins defeated the gods of the underworld, they avenged the death of their forefathers. From a turtle shell, the hero twins raised one of their forefathers, the god of Maize, from death to life once again. They carved a place in the great sea of stars above our heads as well for us turtles. Often referred to as the belt of Orion, the three stars were thought to be the turtle carapace from which the Maize god came forth.

Whenever you make it into the ancient histories of a culture, you are fairly certain of your place in life. Sure, there is the everyday battle for food, and we are unfortunately a delicacy. However, there is a great respect which the Maya people hold for my family and vice versa.

sea turtle in sea grass near Akumal, Mexico
So, I return to these beaches every year. It is such a relief from months of travel to enter the warm embrace of the Caribbean waters. I reach the familiar sea grass beds of Akumal Bay and begin to scout out who are the mightiest looking males around. Many humans do not realize that we turtles are extremely selective about our mating partners. It is a real struggle to find just one suitor that has all the characteristics for which I look. So, I generally choose many. I am equipped with the ability to store the sperm from a number of male turtles for many months, and then fertilize my eggs from a mixture of all.

To humans this is a strange practice, however, we do not have the fortune of protecting and raising our young from babies to adolescents. In actuality, the first 48 hours for a hatchling are the most gruesome hours they will ever spend. I remember my trek. Whoa! At one moment all my brothers and sisters in my particular clutch were safe and snuggled away in our eggs, next thing I know, we were breaking free from the egg and climbing up out of mountains of sand. Keep in mind that these flippers were not made for walking, rather swimming. It was an unbelievable climb. My brothers and sisters were my ladder, and I theirs. We all worked together to get out of that nest. Once we broke the surface of the sand, we headed for the light of the moon. It was easier in my time, for there were not any of those fake moons (artificial lights) hanging all over those large structures abutting the beach. So, I just had to get to the water before any crabs or birds caught me and drug me away.

Once I made it to the water, I then had to swim until I reached the offshore currents. I had to swim for several miles, and the whole time I kept seeing my brothers and sisters leaving my side due to our natural predators, like sharks, big fish, and circling birds. Well, I made it to a floating island of seaweed where I remained for a few years. My elders tell me now that only about 1 in every 1000 baby turtles make it to adulthood.

So, my selection of where to nest, as well as the number of the fathers I choose for my future generations, is due to my desire to pass on only the strongest and most fit genes to my offspring. I remember how much of a struggle I faced. I know my hatchlings will face the same threats of predation, but they will have to also not be able to trust their instincts of going toward the light as I could. They will have to know that there is now more then one moon shedding artificial light upon their already hairy journey.

I am lucky, however. The very same spot of beach I dug myself out from so many moons ago is still shrouded by darkness. Many of the other turtles whom return to Akumal have had to shift away from their original beach a bit to avoid the lighted areas. If we see that our particular spot of beach has been flooded by light, we just see the potential for danger when our hatchlings are making their way to sea. So, as mother turtles, we must again practice the art of selection. Choosing our nesting grounds cannot remain completely instinctual any more.

I typically make my crawl in the wee hours of the morning, but others choose different times. I swim up to my spot, take a good look around to check for any potential problems or predators, then make my way up toward the shore. Once I get in the depth of water where I can no longer swim and float, I remember what it feels like to have to deal with gravity. Terrestrial turtles sure have it hard! However, I trudge along up and out of the surf, all the while scooping out the scene. I am neither the quickest nor the most agile critter alive, so I feel quite vulnerable while on shore.

I like to crawl all the way up to the top of the beach, far away from the high tide mark, to make my nest. Once I get to the spot I was aiming for, my nesting ritual begins. I start first by flinging away all the loose sand on top with my front flippers. This is my favorite part! It is like an explosion of sand flying all around me! Upon reaching the harder sand, I create a sort of pit in which the back half of my body rests. This is much harder and involves rotating my body while digging with my front flippers. Finally, I am - as I like to call - ‘dug-in’. I, then, use my back flippers as two shovels that scoop out a round hole for the eggs. I dig this cavity to a depth of approximately one and a half to two feet, below the already existing body pit. The digging is such exhausting work, but I think the covering of the nest is actually the hardest part.

After I lay all 80 to 120 of my eggs, I have to cover and pack down the sand. I use my rear flippers to fill the egg cavity and compact the sand. Once that is completed, I use my front flippers to refill the body pit. I need to make this part nice and level so as to hide the nest because there are many terrestrial animals that dine on the eggs of a turtle. Raccoons, crabs, and poachers are my biggest fears around here. So, I need to hide my new nest as best I can. After throwing sand in all directions, I am thrilled when, at last, I can turn my tired body around and return to sea.

That last crawl is so difficult. I am exhausted from the whole process, and I can see the sea calling to me. It seems like it is miles away! When I finally make it to the water, I feel the waves begin to pick me up and carry my tired body. I regain my preferred weightless status, and I lazily swim off. I usually spend this time thinking about the eggs I just laid. I have to have a lot of hope that, at least one of the eggs I just laid, makes it to adulthood. I will actually repeat this nesting process anywhere between 2 and 10 times per summer. Once I lay my last nest of the summer, I always feel the urge to set off on another one of my travels.

Another successful summer, and many hopefully next of kin…with a small tear in my eye, I leave my home waters and set my course for the great mother ocean. Where am I going to go this year? What great sea-life am I going to have the pleasure to encounter along my path? Funny, I have spent so many years swimming these oceans, and yet, there are still new sights every day. I just take my time and swim through life at my own speed. I have no agenda, no destination, no certain direction…I only have two eyes that have seen some incredible things, a brain that remembers all these great tales, and a biological clock to keep calling me back home to Akumal.


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