It started slowly at first. Sporadic, barely perceptible ripples of movement disturbed the otherwise dormant oasis of sand. Like a symphony rising to its crescendo, the bubbling beach was building our anticipation before revealing its secret. There was something beneath the surface and it was fighting its way out.
We had timed it perfectly. With the help of orange marker tape and GPS coordinates marking the location we had found the small patch of sand easily enough. But, that was no guarantee that the nest, so dutifully laid by a critically endangered hawksbill turtle, would hatch in the small window of time we were there. Sitting between beach markers E and F on Cousin Island we were about to become the lucky onlookers to one of those unique spectacles that nature occasionally bestows upon the fortuitous few.
Like a protective mother reluctant to allow their child into the harsh realities of the world, the sand, that unconscious womb which had provided a safe haven during those vital embryonic days was finally succumbing to the nascent turtles’ inherent yearning for the sea.
Around two months after their mother had laboured up the beach, found her spot and laid her eggs the first of her hatchlings broke the surface. First the trailblazer’s head poked through, then the front two flippers finding purchase on the sand pulled the tiny turtle – a comfortable fit in the palm of your hand – up from the depths of the lair below and into the vast expanse of fresh air and sunlight.
With an indefatigable spirit and surprising strength, seemingly incongruous to the vulnerable hatchling before our eyes, the tiny dark brown hawksbill clambered free of the nest site, took one quick sniff of the air and headed towards the sea.
Following the pioneering turtles lead, perhaps buoyed by their success, one turtle became two, two became three, each hatchling scrambling to the surface in a flurry of flippers. Before long, the gentle trickle of turtles became a cascade and soon after the sand became a whirlpool of activity as new born hawkbills vied for their freedom.
With a crudely drawn line etched into the sand a metre or so away – between the nest entrance and the sea – and an egg counter in one hand we attempted to count. 153 healthy turtles passed that line on their journey to the sea.
Positioned at intervals down the beach, camera in hand, we stood and watched, each of us harbouring a peculiar sense of parental pride, as the turtles struggled bravely towards the expanse of the Indian Ocean.
Each footprint left on the beach was as wide and formidable as a canyon, each piece of washed-up coral or stone akin to scaling a mountain. Nevertheless, the turtles battled gamely down the slope, conquering each new obstacle with gritty determination. The normally ubiquitous ghost crabs were kept at bay by our presence, these turtles were the lucky ones, whole clutches were known to be eaten by the opportunistic scavengers before any hatchlings even made it out of the nest.
After descending the beach and nearing the water’s edge, instead of completing the final few metres in the small sprinting bursts that had defined their gait up to this point, and as if sensing that all that was needed was one final push, the turtles lurched forward into one last continuous surge of effort and plunged head first into the breaking waves, the open ocean and the rest of their lives.
We watched as the last of the 153 turtles reached the sea, and as I took a moment to survey the scene, the sand returning to its sublime serenity after a few moments of frenzied activity, I couldn’t help but notice the wide smiles plastered on the faces of the other volunteers. The turtles had made it over the first hurdle.
However, the hardships are far from over for the hatchlings, the sea brings a plethora of new challenges and dangers. A baby turtle is a tasty morsel to a whole host of predators. But, with a generous slice of luck, it could be that one of those hawksbills will return to that same spot of beach years later, just like their mother, and start the cycle all over again.