Baja Hope

by Carl Safina
Summer 2008

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.

Five hundred miles from Seri land, near Baja’s southern tip, we stand on an isolated span of desert seashore, our eyes on the Pacific Ocean. For the five Seri who’ve journeyed there, this is unfamiliar territory. The small Seri delegation is led by 73-year-old matriarch Cleotilde Morales. Accompanying her are three young women in their early 20s who had never been in an airplane, never before beheld the Pacific Ocean. Much Seri cultural knowledge is handed down in songs, and Cleotilde is both master singer and daughter of a master singer – something like descendant royalty. Uncrowned, lacking fine raiment, her status is elevated simply by the respect and the deference shown her.

Only six leatherback nests have been found here this entire season, representing likely one surviving female using this shore. So the Seri decide to adapt their leatherback rite by paying homage to a hatchling.

One hatchling is emerging now in protective custody in a tiny hatchery shed at a tworoom scientific field station. The Seri see Leatherback as sacred in religious terms. I see it as sacred in earthly terms. Whatever one’s belief in the architecture of Heaven and Earth, profound respect and a covenant of stewardship can light your path.

The sight of the first hatchling moves Cleotilde to tears. Though almost certainly the first baby Moosnipol Cleotilde has ever seen (leatherbacks don’t nest where the Seri live), she greets it with the familiarity one might show a close friend’s infant. As the Seri see it, we are all family, turtles and humans alike. As a biologist who has studied evolution in books and in life, I see it essentially the same way. Cleotilde’s sense of relation doesn’t seem primitive; it’s how I wish the whole world felt.

Cleotilde offers a song of love and a wish for safety. Her song has a chanting rhythm to it. Cleotilde’s aged voice is neither sweet nor melodic, but beautiful, as anything genuine is beautiful – a little frail but resonant with the long experience of a people who have suffered and survived. It’s the voice of the human spirit, loosed into the desert like an owl at dusk.

Late in the afternoon, we go to the beach to release the little turtles. Following Cleotilde, who continually chants and sings, we crest the 40-foot dune separating the desert from the sea. The sun, slipped to the horizon, is painting the desert in changing pastels. The surf grows louder.

Cleotilde kneels and places the little turtles one by one onto the sand, chanting a Leatherback song as they begin rowing down the inclined beach. They move slowly, as though motivated seaward by instinct yet enthralled by Cleotilde’s incantation.

Or maybe it’s that for me, the stream of time is pooling at the confluence of biology and belief, grief and hope. And in the air is something that bypasses hope, something that packs the force of prayer: the conviction that energy applied deeply and consistently with sufficient faith can redirect the future.

The hatchlings advance. A wave tumbles them. They right themselves and resume marching. The next wave rakes them down in its outwash. No one ever said their lives will be easy.

Three gray whales have gathered just outside the surf, directly before us, as though gathered in welcome. I think this is just an extraordinary coincidence, but I feel chills. When one of them unfurls its prayer flag of white breath, Cleotilde launches a whale
song, and suddenly the whole scene feels aglow in magic.

The last turtle hatchling pauses as though reluctant to leave the sound of Cleotilde’s song. Yet while she chants, her hands wave encouragement toward its progress. As the last little one commits itself to the infinite mystery, the nearest whale lifts its huge head from the water. It seems to be watching, or checking to be sure all are accounted for. It seems so extraordinary – this gesture of the whale – so surreal, so tuned to the spirit of the ceremony, that it raises the hairs on my arms.

The little ones have left us, slipping into the lacy whitewater and under the hem of the ocean, never hesitating, using everything they know, with all they’ve got.

Turtles have taught me this: Do all you can and don’t worry about the odds against you. Wield the miracle of life’s energy, concerned only that whether we fail or succeed we do so with all our might. That’s all we need to know to make our efforts worth our while on Earth.

I wonder if this ceremony, so far from the Seris’ home way up in the Gulf, on the other side of Baja, is the end of something ancient or the start of a future regained. I’m not certain what it is, but I know what it means: It means hope lives. What they see, and what I’ve come to see, is the possibility of making things better. That’s what hope is: the belief things can get better. Hope fuels every worthwhile endeavor, and as the Seri and the leatherbacks have taught me, the world belongs to those who don’t give up.

Adapted from Voyage of the Turtle by Carl Safina, published by Henry Holt.

About the Author

Carl Safina brought ocean conservation into the environmental mainstream and is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. His books include Song for the Blue Ocean, Eye of the Albatross and Voyage of the Turtle, and his writing has been featured in National Geographic and elsewhere. He’s been profiled by The New York Times, Nightline and Bill Moyers and has been awarded a Pew Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, a John Burroughs Medal, and a MacArthur Prize, among others.