The Mating Rituals of Turtles
by Donna Hemans
When it is not nesting season, sea turtles may migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles.
We’re in Treasure Beach at a literary festival. Rain is coming down around us, pounding the tent, thrumming against it like a thousand hearts beating. Water pools on the ground and on the top of the tent, which dips in places under the weight. Mud oozes beneath our feet and chairs. A songwriter thrums a guitar, and talks over it, explaining the poetry of a Bob Marley song. Together—the rain beating on the tent, the guitar, the man’s voice, the breeze coming off the sea, the sea itself roiling with angry waves—it is poetic, romantic even. I don’t want to leave at all. But it’s the last day of the festival, and besides it’s not even the primary purpose of our trip. We happened upon it.
We came to Treasure Beach because Devon said we should do our part to save endangered sea turtles. He’s not an environmentalist but he believes the scientists who say some turtle species could be extinct in thirty years or even less. He can’t stand to think of another species going extinct. So instead of planning trips around festivals and cultural excursions, lying on a beach, ziplining through tropical forests or climbing a dormant volcano, we travel to places like Treasure Beach on Jamaica’s south coast to save sea turtles from extinction. We could be working to save turtles in our own backyard, anywhere off the eastern coast of the United States, but here we are hundreds of miles away in a sleepy fishing village in a country we barely know. I try not to think of the irony. We save turtles instead of talking about our own failure to contribute to the continuation of the human species.
Courtship and mating for most sea turtles are believed to occur during a limited “receptive” period prior to the female’s first nesting emergence.
By morning, the rain clears and we walk down to the beach. It’s mostly quiet, not at all like the beaches on Jamaica’s north coast where all the tourists tend to converge. After all this isn’t a resort town with all-inclusive hotels and craft markets. Instead of jet skis there are fishing boats. Instead of glitzy restaurants there’s a bar and restaurant in the middle of the ocean that you can only get to by a short boat trip; it looks like a stick hut that shouldn’t survive a massive wave or even withstand the weight of ten adults. Here there are villas and cottages—some simple, some ostentatious, all quiet and peaceful. Treasure Beach is a like a well-kept secret. It’s not a place you find by accident.
I expect us to be alone on the beach, but a family of five plays in the water next to us. The youngest, a friendly three- or four-year-old brings a plastic pail and shovel to me and plops on the sand as if we are old friends. “I’m making a castle,” she says.
I don’t know the first thing about building a sand castle, but I shovel wet sand in the pail and dump it next to us. She giggles and repeats the shoveling and dumping of sand.
“What’s your name?” I ask and realize too late I’m using that singsong voice adults adopt when talking to children.
“Alyssa,” she says. “What’s your name?”
“Like a bird,” she says, then she turns to her mother who sits a few feet from us. “Mommy, come meet my friend Robyn.”
I’ve imagined a daughter like this, a charmer who knows no strangers. And I’ve imagined a shy girl clinging to my legs or watching the world from the safety of my arms. Sometimes I picture a boy dropping little trucks and toy soldiers in my purse, me walking into my office building, rummaging through my purse for my ID or wallet and coming up with a handful of forgotten toys. But I almost always imagine a girl with chubby cheeks and thick, bushy afro puffs, carrying around a worn and ragged doll. Her complexion is always closer to my dark skin than Devon’s almost translucent skin. It’s always a family of three—me and Devon (or sometimes a faceless man) and our little girl walking down the front steps or filling one side of an airplane row.
I’ve never been more conscious of my body, the ebb and flow of hormones, the monthly twinge that tells me my ovary is releasing an egg, my breasts growing tender, the rise and fall in my body’s temperature. I know now about luteinizing hormone or LH and LH surge, my five most fertile days. I know about fertility testing to estimate my remaining egg supply, or ovarian reserve. I’m forty. I know how little time I have.
Males almost never return to land once they leave the sand of their natal beach.
The cook brings our fish, and the scent of the vinegar sauce and pepper awakens a memory of Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s crowded house. We could stand outside on either the front porch or the back steps and smell the vinegar and peppers, the coconut milk boiling with red beans, fried plantains, sometimes fried chicken. It was always a full house, sometimes ten, sometimes fifteen of us spilling out onto the back porch in warm weather or crowding the living room and basement in the winter. Devon’s and my quiet existence is markedly different from what I grew up with and how I imagined my adult life.
“That’s the scent of home,” I say to him.
“Hmm,” is all he says and dips his fork into the vegetable stew, coming up with a forkful of beans, onions and carrots.
I take my time separating out the strips of red and orange bell peppers and smaller pieces of scotch bonnet peppers. The pieces of bammy are fried crisp, just the way I like it.
Tonight, we’re on night duty, conducting surveys to observe and tag nesting females and we’ll return early in the morning to look for adult turtle tracks and locate nests. Sometimes we end up relocating nests that are threatened by one reason or another.
“Full moon,” he says, and looks down at my plate to see if I’m done. “We should head over.”
We meet the rest of the volunteers—three locals and a handful of tourists staying at one of the many small villas—on the beach. Devon is chatty again. He sidles up to Swaby, and carries on a conversation I don’t care to hear. He walks up front, and I lag in the back with another chatty couple.
As we walk, we look down for turtle tracks. Only females come ashore to nest. After hatching and heading out to sea, male turtles typically don’t return to land. We follow the tracks. Swaby holds up a hand and we stop mid-stride. The turtle is slow and awkward on the sand, and as if she senses our presence, she stops and looks around and we step back so as not to disturb her nesting.
The turtle will head to a dry part of the beach, and shovel out a cavity to lay and bury her eggs. We’ll return in the morning to mark the nest with flagging tape, note the type of activity, whether the turtle nested or aborted her attempt, and erase all the turtle tracks.
Females observed on the nesting beach after recently mating often have scratched shells and may be bleeding from where the males were hooked to their shells.
Neither of us put much effort into our bout of sex. It’s over quickly and Devon falls asleep just as quickly. I shift my body away from his and step out onto the small patio. It’s hard getting used to the pitch black night, the chirping of the night insects, the bugs that flit around any bit of light, whether the flickering flame of a candle, a bare light bulb or the white light from a cellphone. Despite the discomfort of the dark, I am thinking how easily I could live in a remote fishing village like this tending to visitors who come in and out of my life, without the permanence of a mate, without the permanence of Devon. There’s no reason I can’t write communications plans and website content from here.
Allie, my lifelong friend, has been telling me this is a phase. I hear her voice now, hoarse from talking too long and too loud in a crowded classroom. We were sitting in the window seat at her home, our hands curled around plastic wine glasses. “One day,” she said, “you’ll look at him and wonder why you ever thought of leaving. Retirees on a cruise ship, on deck, holding hands and looking out at the sea spread out before you.” She laughed as she said this because she knows a cruise ship is the last place I will be. “Well maybe not a ship. On safari in South Africa.”
“Hardly a safari,” I said. “Freeing trapped elephants is more like it. I have nightmares of me being trampled by the very elephant I freed.”
She laughed again, gulped a belly full of air.
It wasn’t always like this with Devon. We traveled for pleasure, for jazz festivals in the Caribbean, cropover in Barbados, the Gologo festival in Ghana, Diwali in India. We traveled for culture, soaked up life across the continents, planned for how we would introduce our children to the world, planned for how we would raise truly multicultural children who would live lives distinctly different from our mono-culture childhoods. Now we travel only to save endangered species, turtles mostly.
We were an epicurious couple. We ate what the locals ate. We tried every new restaurant, every fusion combination imaginable. Now, he eats with restrictions, sticking to what he hears about on a single obscure podcast from a doctor with a questionable degree. He buys bone broth by the gallons, no longer eats grains or meats, hordes bottles and bottles of vitamin pills with questionable benefits (forty-three bottles in all I counted last). His obsession with food and health is like a cult led by varying “experts” who reach their followers via podcasts and outdated websites with horrible designs. Our evenings are like this: I sit on one end of the table with Ethiopian takeout, dipping injera into a spicy wat. He sits on the other end with a plate of raw vegetables and a bowl of bone broth.
I can see the moment our lives diverged. We were in a doctor’s office, my chart and papers spread out on the desk between us and her. The doctor looked at me and said my fallopian tubes were clear, my uterus healthy and blood test results normal.
Devon leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “So then,” he said, “why can’t she carry a child?”
I hated the way he said “she,” as if it was all my fault, as if I willed my body to reject the possibility of a child.
“The problem isn’t always with the woman,” the doctor said.
I could see him folding in, protecting himself the way turtles and crabs do. “No way,” he said and shook his head as if the doctor said he wasn’t truly a man. Then he got really quiet. We haven’t talked of it since. He drinks bone broth instead and takes a multitude of vitamins as if the combination will cure his infertility. That day has grown between us like an ivy covered wall, impossible to scale or break down.
During mating season, males may court a female by nuzzling her head or gently biting the back of her neck and rear flippers.
Devon starts to rustle. He reaches over and pulls me closer to him. I wait a moment and he begins breathing deeply again. I shift slightly easing away from the bed before he wakes fully, reminding myself of the reason I came along with him here: to let go of him, to let go of us.
The female crawls out of the ocean, pausing frequently as if carefully scoping out her spot.
Outside a man whistles a song I don’t recognize. It’s early, the sunlight soft, the ground damp, the air still, and the cabins in the compound quiet. For now, the clouds have cleared out and I sit for a moment on the steps to the cabin trying to think of nothing at all.
We’re on morning duty today. We’ll look for adult turtle tracks and locate and tag their nests.
“You coming?” Devon has come up behind me. He’s wearing cargo shorts and a blue t-shirt that clings to his chest. Bone broth and raw vegetables has melted away his extra layers of fat.
“Five minutes,” I say.
Five minutes turn to ten then fifteen. I take my time doing and undoing a bun, combing out my thick curls into an Afro, then dampening and braiding my hair like a half crown. When I head back outside the proprietress, Yvonne, is waiting with Devon, tallying the number of turtles she thinks the group in Treasure Beach has saved over the last five years.
They walk ahead of me along a shortcut in the bush to the bay where the conservation group is set to meet.
“You should come back when they hatch,” she says. “Nothing like watching the babies crawl out of the nests and make their way to sea.”
“Of course,” Devon says. He looks back at me, as if expecting me to back up his decision. I say nothing at all, but look back down at the shrubs jutting into the path. Before long, we’re there in the bay, the last to join the group.
Yvonne reminds the group of the day’s task, hands out rolls of orange ribbon to place near the nests we find. We break into small groups. Devon sticks with me. “Let’s do this,” he says.
The turtle tracks, pronounced indentations in the sand, resemble exaggerated wheel tracks. We walk on either side of the tracks, following one to the point where the turtle seemed to abort her attempt to build a nest, and turned around and made her way back to sea.
“Something must have disturbed her,” Devon says. He stops and looks around.
“She’ll try again,” I say.
We pick up another set of tracks and follow it away from the open sand to a tree branch embedded in the sand. Beneath the branch is the telltale sign of the nest: disturbed sand. We tag it, noting the date on the ribbon and move on to search for others. The second we find is too close to fishermen’s boats.
“They won’t survive,” Devon says. “Not a chance.”
“Why’re you so sure?”
“We have to move this one.” He looks around, scanning the beach for Yvonne or Swaby, the second volunteer lead. “We’re responsible for them now.”
He is mostly right. Once a female leaves her nest, she never returns to tend it.
Swaby is the first to reach us. “Bad spot,” he says, proving Devon right.
We tag the nest as well, with a note on relocation, and move on.
Sometimes she will crawl out of the ocean, but for unknown reasons decide not to nest. This is a false crawl, and it can happen naturally or be caused by artificial lighting or the presence of people on the beach.
Devon is energized by the morning’s work. He’s playful, kicking up sand with his bare feet, leaning into me, brushing his body against mine. “We should come back,” he says. “See the babies.”
He’s talking about the hatchlings, which will finish incubating and begin hatching in about 60 days. Sometimes volunteers help release the baby turtles to the sea. It may be as simple as raking the area between the nest and the sea to flatten out the sand. Or inspecting the hatchlings to find the healthy ones that are ready to crawl their way to the water, and putting back the others that aren’t.
“Sure,” I say and let the moment pass. It’s not quite right to tell him I don’t see a way forward for us.
Yvonne and Swaby are just behind us. “Early August,” Yvonne says. “And it’s our Independence so book early.”
Most females return faithfully to the same beach each time they are ready to nest.
It’s our last night here and we’re sitting on the steps to the cabin, my hand wrapped around a Red Stripe beer bottle. An empty bag of banana chips lays crumpled between us. It’s pitch black. The sky twinkles and around us nighttime insects chirp steadily.
“I could get used to this,” he says.
“The quiet?” I ask, and before he can answer, I add, “Or parenting? Watching your babies grow up and go out in the world.”
“We could do both,” I say. My heart quickens a little.
Just as quickly, he says, “Turtles don’t become whiny toddlers or horrible teenagers or young adults who never leave home.”
“True.” I take a moment, glad there is no light, no way he can see the tears welling up in my eyes. “You used to want children.”
“Yes, used to. Look at the world we would bring them into.”
“It’s not so bad,” I say. “We’re still living in it, aren’t we?”
“For now,” he says.
He doesn’t understand the gaping hole saving turtles cannot fill.
We don’t want the same things, and I know with absolute certainty that when we return I will do this without him.
Once a female leaves her nest, she never returns to tend it.
“It’s a pity you’re leaving today,” Yvonne says. She has brought two heaping plates with breakfast—ackee and saltfish, boiled green bananas and fried plantains. Devon’s plate has calaloo without saltfish. “We’re moving the nest today.”
“How much time do we have?” Devon asks. “Can we at least see a little bit of it?”
“If you hurry,” she says.
When we arrive, two environmental biologists are kneeling on the ground around the excavated nest, slowly moving the eggs—99 in all—from the nest to egg cartons, then slowly replacing them in another nest of roughly the same depth they’ve excavated beneath a sea grape tree. They cover it over just like a turtle would.
Someday that may be me. My eggs in the hands of an embryologist. My own embryo growing for a while outside of me.
“Time to go,” I whisper before I cry.
Donna Hemans is the author of River Woman and Tea by the Sea, forthcoming in spring 2020 from Red Hen Press. Her stories have appeared in Wasafiri Online, Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, the anthology Stories from Blue Latitudes: Caribbean Women Writers at Home and Abroad and others. She’s online at donnahemans.com and on Twitter at @donna_hemans.