We walk onto the beach in the late evening, as the last rays of the sunset scatter a vivid red amongst the clouds. The beach itself is already dark, shaded from the final remnants of daylight by a dense row of condos pressed against the edge of the dunes.
It’s the first day of a week in Florida; a brief respite from jobs and lives to get together as a family. Mom is walking next to me, but worry lines her face.; I can tell her mind is on my little brother, Charlie. He couldn’t join us; instead, he’s driving across the country to Los Angeles, where a suddenly-opened spot in a dance school awaits him. For the rest of us, the beach awaits instead.
We cross from the wooden walkway onto the warm white sand. The heat of the day has given way to a cooling breeze, and the worry in the air fades under the calm of an evening shore.
The beach is nearly deserted. There are only two other figures visible in the dark: one tall, one short, watching a nearby patch of sand. It looks like a mother and child. The child runs toward us. “They’re hatching!” she yells, before hurrying back to her mom.
As we approach, I see a roped-off area about four feet square, where a shallow hole has been dug into the sand. In the middle is something small and dark. “Look,” says the mother, “it moved!”
The child stops running around to stare at it for a moment. The woman looks up at us. “Do you have a cell phone on you?”
We don’t, and she laughs. “Figures. The one day my husband decided not to come with us, they hatch. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘they’ll never hatch tonight.'” She points to one of the corners of the square, where a wooden stake marks the line that humans shall not cross (under pain of fines and/or imprisonment from Volusia County). On it is written a series of dates.
“See,” she says, “June 22nd is when the nest was discovered. August 7th is the earliest they could have hatched, and August 31st is the most likely date. They’re ten days early. On the one night we have no flashlight, no cell, no car…” She sighs. “Are you all here on vacation?”
“Yes,” I nod. “We just got here today.”
“We’ve been coming down here for years,” she says. “We’re locals. And we’ve never seen a nest of sea turtles hatch.”
We wait for a few minutes. The baby turtle seems to be taking a break from his attempts to free himself from the nest. “Why don’t we keep walking,” Mom suggests, “then come back and see how they’re doing?”
We start down the beach, but a moment later the little girl shrieks, “They’re coming!”
We hurry back to the nest, where a few other beachwalkers have been drawn in as well. A baby turtle, no bigger than a half-dollar coin, has made it out of the nest and about one foot toward the water.
“Where’s he going?” the little girl asks.
“Into the ocean,” her mother says. “He has a long way to swim to reach his home.”
“But where’s his home?”
“Many miles away,” she answers softly. “A place far out in the ocean, called the Sargasso Sea.”
“Wow…” the girl says. She hurries off to the water to dip her feet in the surf, and then runs back to join her mother, watching the baby turtle make its slow progress along the sand.
The turtle doesn’t notice his group of fans, this somber assembly of a few quiet adults and a rambunctious little girl. He’s operating on instinct, and instinct doesn’t tell him to stop and wave. So he scrambles over sand dunes half-an-inch high and massive clumps of seaweed the size of my foot, single-minded in his determination to reach the breaking waves.
Behind him, one of his siblings has made it out of the nest and started toward the water. It doesn’t seem to be as strong, though, and the first turtle is putting an increasing amount of distance between them. Family ties aren’t very strong in sea turtle families.
Behind me, Mom sniffles. “It makes me think of Charlie leaving the nest.”
The turtle has reached the water’s edge, where the remnants of a wave are soaking into the sand. He scrambles forward, and a wave washes over him. It pushes him backwards, then pulls him toward the ocean. Then another, pushing the turtle backwards, then pulling him forward as it recedes.
“That one’s Freddy,” the little girl says to her mother, as the turtle, caught on the wave, recedes out of reach.
We lose sight of Freddy almost instantly in the dark water. I know he’s out there, paddling furiously, rocked and tumbled by the back and forth of the waves, trying to reach a destination over the horizon. The odds are against him, but I can’t help rooting for him, hoping he’s one of the turtles who beats those odds.
Freddy’s sibling has reached the water, and without looking back, I know there are more on the way. But I can’t take my eyes off the horizon, hidden by the murky darkness of twilight.
Come on, Freddy. You can do it.
Andrew S. Williams is a writer living in Seattle. In his spare time he travels, hikes, blogs, and pays the bills as a software developer.