by Carl Safina
Leatherback, the giant among sea turtles, created Tahéjöc, the Seri people’s homeland. Its shell remains visible as the serrated mountains of Isla Tiburón, between Baja and mainland Mexico. In ancient times, Leatherback and people communicated freely. This ability was lost, but Leatherback remains fully capable of understanding songs and speech. Leatherback’s propensity to shed tears, something only humans do, reveals it as a kind of human. Leatherback remains by far the Seris’ most sacred other being.
Seri people traditionally honored Leatherback with a four-day ceremony spontaneously sparked by the sudden arrival of the rare turtle near their villages. Never a regular visitor to the Seri home waters of the upper Sea of Cortés, an arriving Leatherback interrupted whatever everyone was doing. A fisherman would notice, summon the village, and everyone would assemble on the shore to sing in the turtle with special songs. Once ashore, Leatherback stayed four days, during which it was ceremonially painted, housed in a sacred bower on the beach, then sung back to sea.
But as their most sacred creature grew scarce, their most important religious ceremony began fading from experience, then from memory. Since the early 1980s, the leatherback turtle’s breeding population has declined more than 95 percent along Pacific Central America. When no leatherback had visited the Seri in almost a quarter century, elders decided that if Moosnipol – as they call the thousand-pound turtle – can no longer come, they would send a delegation to Moosnipol’s last haunts, even if that meant venturing away from home.