Comes a Turtle, Comes the World

by Carl Safina
Featured in our Heart of Winter 2006 catalog

Patagonia’s 2006-2007 environmental campaign is devoted to the oceans. In this first essay of an 18-month series, the eminent author and ecologist, Dr. Carl Safina, reminds us, through the story of one Kemp’s ridley turtle, of both the abundance and fragility of life in the sea.

The morning chill carried that clean-sheet crispness; that cleansing sort of air. Actually, for the tip of Long Island in early December, this weather was a little late in coming. But walking from our house to the shore of the bay, the new crystal air made me finally look ahead toward winter and turn my back to what had been a spectacular, lingering fall.

Every autumn here witnesses two great migrations: one axiomatic and one nearly unknown. Everybody knows birds fly south for the winter. Here, the marshes and barrier islands are interstate arteries for heavy traffic of songbirds, waterfowl, hawks and others. But except for people who fish, almost no one realizes the greater migration begins just beyond the beach.

This year, as usual, swarms of fish had arrived from New England in the last few weeks and departed down the coast in great migrating waves. They included millions and millions of anchovies and menhaden, pursued to the surface by armies of bluefish, striped bass, little tuna. Along the seafloor battalions of summer flounder, black sea bass, tautog, porgies and others moved to deeper grounds. Offshore, beyond sight of land on the rolling blue prairies of the sea, sharks and tunas passed like herds on the Serengeti (though now, like those herds, much diminished). Herring and mackerel had arrived mid-November with dolphins on their tails, and the remaining schools of striped bass, fattening for their long run to winter grounds, gobbled them greedily. Even now, into December, a few boats were still hunting bass. But we had caught enough, our freezer was stocked for winter and our smoker racks were busy, and we’d just hauled the boat.

Patricia and I put our footsteps to the gravelly beach and walked to the inlet to see who’d recently arrived. Bonaparte’s gulls, a few long-tailed ducks, some black scoters and in the distance the feathered missiles called gannets were sending geysers skyward as a flock poured into a herring school. To me, this seasonal sense of place in the path of migrations, this finger on the pulse of the planet, is the purest joy.

We were just rounding the inlet entrance when, among the shells and tide-wrack, my gaze caught something so unexpected – here, and in this near-frost – it seemed improbable as a fallen angel: a sea turtle.

It was a baby, with a platter-sized shell. Species: Kemp’s ridley, most endangered of all Atlantic turtles. Stunned by the boreal air and 49-degree water, the turtle’s only sign of life was a mark in the wet sand suggesting a flipper had moved sometime since high tide had left it and withdrawn.

This nation that sees itself stretching from sea to shining sea conceals beneath her broad, waving skirts of bordering oceans some of the greatest wildlife in the world. And because it’s so effectively hidden, it’s some of the least understood.

Though the saltiness of our blood and tears speaks from within of our parent ocean, for most people oceans seem distant, out of sight and generally out of mind. Even many who love nature, who see our landscape and imagine herds of bison and skies darkened by passenger pigeons and clouds of waterfowl, who escape into the woods or mountains or even the shore, seem to get their vision stranded on the beach as though wildlife stops at the high-tide line, where our little stunned turtle reminded us that so much actually begins.

The water makes a perfect disguise that heightens the mystery, but in some ways that’s a great pity, because the closest thing we have left to the thundering herds and great flocks is in the sea. Extending your vision into the grand swirl and suck of the many-fingered tides and beyond will grant you a renewed sense of both the abundance and fragility of life.

Whether or not we can see, hear, or feel the ocean from our own home territory, the ocean certainly feels all of us. Between a third and half the world’s people now live within 50 miles of a coast (as any traveler can attest). In China, population density is three times higher in coastal areas than elsewhere. The collective weight of humanity may rest on land, but we levy heavy pressure on the sea. Most of us exert our most direct interaction with the sea through the seafood we buy. But even air quality affects water quality because what goes up alights elsewhere, and climate change is challenging ocean habitats by melting sea ice and cooking corals, undermining food supplies for penguins, polar bears and reef fishes.

People who think of themselves as conservationists carry a concern for wildlife, wildlands and habitat quality as part of their sense of right and wrong. It is time to take these concerns below high tide. Most people would not question a hawk’s place in the sky, nor ask what good is a gazelle, nor wonder whether the world really needs wild orchids. Yet when told of the plight of, say, sharks, many still think it quite reasonable to inquire, “What good are they; why do we need them?” Fifty million buffalo once roamed the rolling green prairies of North America. Gunners reduced them to near-extinction. Now, hunters cut from the same cloth are at work on the rolling blue prairies of the sea and, already, the big fish – including miracles like thousand-pound, warm-blooded bluefin tuna – are 90 percent gone. What we regret happening on land may again happen in the sea. Those who care about wildlife should get to know about oceans.

We brought the turtle home and warmed it a bit in the sun. It began to shed tears, a sign of ongoing glandular function and, for us, heightened hope. Soon a flipper waved – a certain signal of persistent life. Shortly thereafter, the aquarium people arrived to bring our little patient into veterinary rehab. Slowly warmed, within a few hours it was conscious and swimming, safe until release next spring.

Whether we help one unlucky creature or wish to save the world, for each of us the challenge and opportunity is to cherish all life as the gift it is, envision it whole, seek to know it truly, and undertake – with our minds, hearts and hands – to restore its abundance. Where there’s life there’s hope, and so no place can inspire more hopefulness than the great, life-making sea, home to creatures of mystery and majesty, whose future now depends on human compassion, and our next move.

About the Author

Carl Safina’s books include Song for the Blue Ocean and Eye of the Albatross. His conservation work has been profiled in The New York Times, on Nightline and in the Bill Moyer’s television special “Earth on Edge.” A recipient of the Lannan Literary Award, the John Burroughs Writer’s Medal and fellowships from the Pew and MacArthur foundations and the World Wildlife Fund, he is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute, which seeks to inspire a closer relationship with the sea.