Long, long ago, in the days when turtles had teeth, there lived a great sea-turtle, the mother of all sea-turtles, who gracefully swam the wide sea we now call the Pacific Ocean …
Thus begins a folktale from the Western Sepik, as told by Joseph Abi. It tells how that great turtle created the island of New Guinea and brought man and woman to live together there in happiness and peace. (Stokes 1978)
On the beach at Mon Repos, Queensland, the moonlight was mesmerising and the rhythm of the breakers regulated our breathing. In the darkness, I recalled a story I’d read – was it Joseph Campbell who told it? An astronomer gave a public lecture, explaining his theory of the Solar System. He was challenged by an elder in the audience. “You’re wrong,” she said. “We all live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle!”
When questioned by the astronomer about what that turtle stood on, she replied that it was a second turtle … and indeed, that it was turtles all the way down.
“Keep to the shoreline in single file. No noise. No flashlights.” The night air was warm. An almost full-moon shone on a rolling tide, as we silently strode along the shoreline, escorted by our park ranger.
We had come to a conservation park to watch sea-turtles lay their eggs. As Group 3, we waited for the sixth turtle of the night to heave herself up the beach. Three had already turned back. Peering into the dark about 30 m away, I could see a dark hump against the sand. The ranger told us he’d identified her as a Loggerhead, by the alternate left, then right tracks she made as she moved up the beach ( like these we saw the next morning).
Once she had created her nest and begun to lay, we were allowed to come close. Nothing distracts the mother turtle while she is in labour. A light placed under the sand below her. allowed us to see the white eggs tumbling out. We all stood in wonder as we witnessed this miracle of nature.
The ranger checked her tag, and radioed the details back to base. He answered questions – she was about 90kgs, he surmised … to dig the hole deeper, she’d had to tip back into the hole and scoop with her back flippers These details appeared on a certificate we purchased later.
Mon Repos, near Bundaberg in Australia, has the most significant Loggerhead Turtle nesting population in the South Pacific ocean region. They are an endangered species.
But … our turtle had chosen a nest site that was sure to be inundated by the next King Tide. So when she had covered the nest, gotten her bearings and headed back to the sea, our ranger carefully dug out and counted her eggs. We all helped carry those 111 eggs to a safer nest in the dunes. I saw her slip under the waves.
Her hatchlings will scramble down the beach in 2 months time and have a 1:1000 chance of survival. Adult turtles are about 30 years old before they mate and lay eggs. And they keep on coming back to the rookery where they were born! Awesome.
We drifted back along the beach and went home silent.
Early next morning, we found other Loggerhead tracks and the nest on the beach close to where we were staying.
Three landward and seaward trails: three more mother turtles had come up, dug a nest, laid eggs, tucked them in safe and had gone while we slept.
Perhaps that’s how they lost them. Turtles still swim gracefully across the wide Pacific Ocean.
What a gift! What an experience.
All Text and photos by Meg ©2013
Other Texts STOKES, Donlald S. [Collector] & WILSON, Barbara Kerr [Reteller] (1978) The Turtle and the island: folk tales from Papua New Guinea.
See also Turtles all the way down