Salt, Soap, Tangs, Tattoos and Turtles: The Final Showdown

It’s a little-known fact that fish are telepathic, even from great distances.

It's been a month already. Where's the post, and my lunch while you're at it.

It’s been a month already. Where’s the post, and my lunch while you’re at it.

In our last installment of this excruciatingly long series, I wrote about my experience with the Blue Tang Clan off Buck Island in St. Croix.

The Blue Tang Clan.  There were hundreds more of them.

The Blue Tang Clan. There were hundreds more of them.

As ecstatic experiences go, swimming as one of a huge clan of beautiful fish seems a little, well, lacking.  There weren’t any angels or any thunder or any spectacular hypnotic visions that anyone else who travels the snorkeling trail at Buck Island doesn’t have the opportunity to see for themselves.  But I’m not going to discount the “still, small voice” that’s been written about — and I think I heard for a moment — when I swam with them, totally at peace and utterly unafraid (and that doesn’t happen for me a lot), even though I am a weak swimmer and the sea can be rough and very deep in places.

Now Psycho, who is the star of our first photograph, is a very pragmatic barracuda and appears somewhat skeptical of anyone’s epiphany if there isn’t a lionfish spearing involved. When I was cleaning up my chaotic desktop I ran across his picture and guilt set in immediately, as if he’d smacked me in the head directly from St. Croix. You promised a photo of the result of your little event, I thought.  You haven’t posted anything except a tedious pictorial of that somewhat underwhelming tomato paste experiment.

Guilty as charged.  So let’s get right to it — a few days after I swam with the Clan, I got my first tattoo.  And here it is.

I try to remember I have this, when things get rough.

I try to remember I have this, when things get rough.

I’ll admit most folks wouldn’t think of a fish for a tattoo, unless it were a shark or a dolphin (okay, the latter’s a mammal) or maybe a whale (ibid.) silhouetted against a moon.  The spirit animals crowd always seem to lean in on wolves, lions, raptors and the like; I don’t think I’ve run across anyone who admits to a cave mole or a hyena.  (Although it can be pretty fun to take a test to supposedly find yours out.)  The blue tang doesn’t have much going for it except for speed and one hidden armament — a wicked sharp barb near its tail that it can deploy in times of great need.  It’s hardly the kind of image that our cultural and financial “masters of the universe” are going to go for, which is why it’s perfect for me.

The fish him or herself.

The fish, him or herself.

The Blue Tang Clan wasn’t the last extraordinary experience on St. Croix, though.  A friend invited us into a group that would visit Sandy Point during the leatherback turtle-hatching season.  St. Croix, like many Caribbean islands, is a nesting site for several types of sea turtles, and the far-west beach of Sandy Point is an important part of their habitat.  It’s so important, and taken so seriously by the Crucians, that the entire beach is closed for entire chunks of the year.  It is a very lovely place, with the colorful buildings of Frederiksted on the right, the silky white sand beneath your feet, and the endless stretch of sea before you.

A Wilson's plover, sharing a quiet moment on Sandy Point.

A Wilson’s plover, sharing a quiet moment on Sandy Point.

Squads of volunteers organized by the Crucians and researchers from around the world guard and monitor the nesting sites twenty-four hours a day.  If you’re lucky, you can arrange for a guided visit to the Point when the nestlings are hatching.

Leatherback turtle nesting site, marked by the Sandy Point guardians.

Leatherback turtle nesting site, marked by the Sandy Point guardians.

As peaceful and beautiful as the beach is, there are predators that wait for the nestlings to emerge from the sand.  The primary offender is the Magnificent Frigate Bird, whose psychopathic tendencies I have noted in an earlier post.

Magnificent Frigate Bird, doubtlessly looking for something small and defenseless to eat.

Magnificent Frigate Bird, doubtlessly looking for something small and defenseless to eat.

That’s the guy I saw circling obsessively above our group as we were led by a ridiculously young marine biologist to a large circle dug into the sand.  Beneath the surface, laid in layer upon layer, were the eggs of a leatherback turtle that had been coming to this beach for years.  Somehow the researchers and volunteers know when eggs in a certain nest are likely to hatch — though there’s no guarantee.

We were lucky.  It wasn’t long before we saw an odd pointed nose poking out of the sand.  The marine biologist waited for a bit, then gently brushed some sand away, and suddenly there were more noses.  A LOT more noses.  And then there were fins and shells and little turtles clumsily digging and flailing and attempting to crawl in this heaving mound of TINY TURTLE.  (Visitors to this spectacular event aren’t allowed to take photographs, otherwise you’d better believe I’d have some).  As they emerged, a volunteer would whisk them away to a nearby camp where yet another set of biologists would take a tiny scraping of their skin for a DNA sample, which is used for tracking and health analyses.  Though this isn’t my picture, this is what a baby leatherback turtle looks like: Baby_Leatherback_Sea_Turtle_600

The entire time that the babies were emerging, the Magnificent Frigate Bird circled lower and lower and faster and faster.  That bird was auguring in like a drill. The absurdly young marine biologist repeatedly gave him the stink-eye and he prudently removed himself (I wouldn’t have messed with her either), though it was pretty easy to imagine what would have happened were we not there. In the end, there were sixty baby leatherbacks born of the nest we saw, and not one lost as an aperitif.

Once the DNA testing was completed, the volunteers loaded some of the babies into a bucket (you have not lived until you’ve seen a bucket full of thrashing baby turtles), and we were guided to a clear spot a little farther down the beach and very close to the wave line.  We were each given a baby turtle.

Let me tell you, those little dudes can kick.  The biologist told us that they were preloaded with enough fat and energy to help them swim for days without stopping out into the open ocean, and boy did they ever demonstrate this.  It was like trying to hold on to a tiny object infused with an otherworldly strength and determination. You got a feeling that if you held it next to a concrete wall, it could punch through it without hesitation. They wanted the water and the hell with you, they’re going to get to it.

We set them down and they started the sprint to the ocean.  Only a couple got a little distracted and looped back on themselves (one was the UUH’s, of which I never fail to remind him) but were set aright.  The knockback from the waves made the attempt a little frustrating, but they kept trying, and I’ve never rooted so hard for anything in my life.  We were all hooting and cheering and dancing around like a bunch of diehard fans at the Super Bowl. And when the last baby turtle made it through the surge, heading out for his or her great adventure in the ocean, it was, quite simply, glorious.  We walked off the beach and through the scrub back to our cars like we were drunk with joy.

It has been a difficult year, and writing this has helped me remember that there are good things and people as well as bad ones.  So with a tip of the hat to the UUH, Psycho the (Nagging) Barracuda and the Blue Tang Clan, I’ll let a little turtle sign off for me.

Arrivederci and vaya con Dios!

Arrivederci and vaya con Dios!





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