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Leatherbacks, part of a family of turtles that lived over 100 million years ago, are the world’s largest living turtles, growing up to eight feet long and weighing as much as 2,000 pounds (mostly from a diet of jellyfish). They can dive deeper than any other reptile, plunging over 4,000 feet beneath the surface. Despite their length, weight and diving prowess, they haven’t been able to withstand the threats against them, including fishing lines and nets, illegal egg harvesting, nesting habitat loss and floating plastic debris mistaken as jellyfish, making them one of the world’s most endangered animals. Photo: Mike Parry

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.

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.