Beholding those enigmatic, ancient creatures gliding peacefully in a turtle rehabilitation tank, one experiences a wonderment not unlike that on an escapist trip to some charming aquarium. However, the awe felt at a sea turtle rehabilitation center doesn’t allow to escape in any picture perfect land, for it is firmly juxtaposed with the hard-hitting reality of a swiftly diminishing natural world and its silent screams for help.
After all, those turtles did not exchange their splendorous worlds of endless oceans, vast underwater forests rich with colorful weeds, reefs and rocks beneath, and surreally lit up with the unhindered sunrays filtering through, straight from the azure above – for these small manmade tanks inside enclosed buildings – by choice.
The turtles at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center at Jekyll Island are some of the fortunate ones having been rescued and recovering – among the thousands along the coasts of the US and across the world, who suffer injuries and illnesses every year – almost all caused directly or indirectly by human activities.
They suffer serious wounds and infections from boat strikes or collisions with the propellers. As sea turtles mistake almost everything for food, many of them develop serious, painful medical conditions because of swallowing toxic chemicals dumped into the ocean, pieces of plastic trash, plastic bags, balloons, fishnets and even fishing hooks.
Fishing lines lying in the ocean that take hundreds of years to biodegrade on their own are the most dangerous for these innocent creatures. Since sea turtles swim by moving their flippers in a circular fashion, they often get entangled by lines which they cannot escape or detangle on their own. When not treated, they loose their limbs due to that. Also, when they try to take a longline bait, they are hooked, leading to drowning or being left with fatal injuries. A large number of sea turtles that need help never make it to a rehabilitation facility and die for no fault of theirs.
Almost all the species of sea turtles in the world today are classified as endangered. However, polluted oceans & greedy fishing activities are not the only ways humanity’s temporal ambitions and blatant disregard for the environment are threatening the existence of this amazing wildlife. We are robbing them of their homes on land too.
Not long ago, people at the Maafaru Airport on an island of Maldives found a large green sea turtle lying in the middle of a newly constructed tarmac. They were baffled to see that the turtle was laying eggs right on the runway. This happened because the turtle was most probably born on the same spot years ago when it was not an airstrip but just a tranquil beach with long history of being a popular nesting site for the turtles on the island. As part of what is called natal homing, many sea turtles return to the same beach to nest, where they themselves were born.
This mother turtle simply followed a natural instinct but in place of the soft sand of her home, she found concrete. She must have felt a different smell in the air, a different touch under her fins, she must have felt confused. But her rather simple mind would take a few more visits before she finally realizes that man doesn’t want anything but himself on that beach. Then, where will she go? Probably nature would have taught her to find alternative shores. Or not. But who cares?
This heartbreaking incident was one of many obvious examples of how endangered sea turtles are suffering from habitat loss – which somehow managed to grab news headlines and thankfully, garnered a lot of attention.
“Hi, my name is Magnolia” – Read the front of one tank at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a frail looking young turtle swimming inside. It was heartening. The presence of a name not only helped made her pain to be felt immediately by people standing before her, to a human mind distracted hopelessly with gadgets, it also saved the turtle from being reduced to an exhibit floating in front of it. To a generation that is not used to pay attention to the life they encounter on a daily basis – a name, perhaps made the turtle alive. “Hey Magnolia, how are you?” I had heard a teenager whisper softly.
In an interview given to Krista Tippet, Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Togehter, and founder/director of the MIT Initiative on Technology & Self, talked about a thought-provoking incident that helped her frame her thinking on the new sense of a cold pragmatism among the young generation.
Once in a Darwin exhibition at a museum, Sherry’s daughter saw a Galapagos turtle brought up from the islands. The girl who was exposed to robots since a very young age, looked at the sleeping turtle and said to her mother, “For what this turtle is doing, they could have just had a robot.”
It struck Sherry that from the point of view of her young daughter, the fact that it was alive didn’t mattered at all. She went back to the museum several times and began to interview children and their parents about the question of the turtles, and was stunned to find that the children began to use this phrase while talking about turtles – “A robot would have been alive enough.” A Phrase that Sherry had never heard in her 20 years in the field. She lamented,
This is no longer philosophical. Life becomes a pragmatic quality.
Is this alive enough for this purpose?
During the interviews, one day while the kids were asking “Did it have to be alive for this?” a father had said, “It’s real. That’s the whole point.” Those words were lost on the kids.
When I imagine that mother turtle on the airstrip who was reportedly released back to the ocean, I see her slowly walking away from us all, then, disappearing with an onrushing wave, and taking with her a whole kingdom that was once gifted to us but we refused to keep, a kingdom we could not have even imagined ourselves, nor did we ever manage to grasp its phenomenon. Let alone recreating it, once lost.
Article ©2022 Gyaneshwari Dave