As it turns out, the third time really is the charm.
We’ve traveled twice before to El Cuco Beach in El Salvador in search of some quiet respite from Tegucigalpa. We now know better than to travel to the beach on Christmas in Central America, as everyone and their madre did the same. But respite be damned when there’s baby turtles involved.
We’ve ventured to prime turtle nesting beaches in 3 countries with nary a trace of the majestic creatures. I was beginning to think it was all a cleverly concocted myth (a la Nessie or El Chupacabra) or to lure tourists to these otherwise unspoiled and unoccupied beaches. But when I heard J shouting my name from across the beach, I couldn’t help but get my hopes up.
La Tortuga Verde did not disappoint. A volunteer carrying a bucket of baby turtles was making his way to the shoreline, a hoard of tourists in tow. We joined the spectacle just in time to see him empty the bucket while he held us back to observe, but not interrupt. I expected that National Geographic moment in which the tiny turtles dutifully charge toward the ocean, called by some primal, biological impulse.
What actually happened was a bit of a… fustercluck. Some turtles hunkered down, causing a number of murmurs along the lines of “IS IT DEAD?!” Others started crawling the wrong way back up the beach or side to side. When the first small wave came upon them, very few rode it back to the surf. The rest were swept amidst our feet in the most high-stakes game of “freeze tag” I’ve ever played. After ten enchanting minutes of watching the little guys struggle to make their way to the water, we got the okay to give them a hand in the very literal sense.
I didn’t question the morality of this (and certainly not the legality, since this is Central American after all) until a friend from home mentioned that it is indeed illegal to intervene with baby sea turtles in the U.S. Supposedly it has less to do with their endangered status than it does their future nesting habits: I know now that the simple act of struggling down the sand helps baby sea turtles imprint on the beach. They rely on the earth’s magnetic field to locate and return to the exact beach they were born when it comes time to lay eggs of their own.
So, um… oops. I suppose the silver living, at least, is that this batch of eggs had a fair chance, compared to the others that end up on the dinner table. After witnessing what I would describe as nothing short of miraculous, it’s hard to fathom that turtle eggs are a delicacy in El Salvador. Central America really is a place of unparalleled natural beauty, but most of the countries have a long way to go in terms of conserving their many outdoor wonders.