We'll know, that's who

We tourists were on the beach at Tortuguera, in Costa Rica. It was about 5:45 in the morning, and we were there to see if all the green sea turtles, which lay their eggs on the beach, had finished the reproduction process. It was late in the season.

We could see the bowl shapes of their

great nests, and we also saw a number of shell pieces lying around, showing how the little turtles had already broken out of their eggs and gone to sea.

Our guide, whose name was Jorge, told us that since this was a national park, no one was to interfere in any way with the turtles, which were an endangered species. Many of us had seen a National Geographic TV special on sea turtles a while ago, showing how difficult the lives of the hatch-lings are.

The turtles have survived by laying so many eggs that some hatchlings will reach the sea, and some of those that do will grow to adulthood. In the television special, we saw the frigate birds snatch up the young turtles as they raced down the beach toward the water. Other predators also reaped their share of the hatchlings.

We didn't see any turtles at first, though we did see lines of small tracks that showed how some the previous night had made their rush to the ocean. And by the tracks we saw that some had made it.

Jorge told us that the previous morning one of the locals, on his way to work, had seen a turtle in the nest cup circling, confused, unable to find its way to the ocean. He had taken pity on it and, without touching it, had heaped up sand to steer it on its way. A park ranger had seen him through a telescope, however, and he was now going to have to go to court to answer for his pity.

Then we, too, came upon a tiny turtle doing the same thing, circling and circling, obviously just hatched, obviously anxious and confused. We watched it, helpless, we thought, for a long time, but it made no progress. Finally, Jorge, seeing no ranger with a telescope, picked up a bunch of sand in his hat, with the turtle in it, and carried it down to the edge of the sea, about 60 yards, because the beach was flat and the nests are always above the highest tide line.

He dumped out the turtle, our turtle now, and again the tiny beast paddled his way in circles on the sand. But eventually a spent wave caught him and tumbled him over and over. Somehow this seemed to galvanize him. He no longer hesitated, but headed in the right direction, and after being tumbled several more times, made it out into the water. We could see his tiny head above the waves, moving out to sea. We named him after Jorge and wished him a safe journey.

Of course, his problems in life had just begun. But he was on his way. Why, I asked myself, did we violate the rules as we had? I remembered reading in one of Edwin Way Teale's books about a mayfly hatch he viewed. In such an event, billions of mayflies gain adulthood at once, and they have about a day to mate and lay eggs before their lives are expended. He saw one in the mud, its wing caught, and stooped to free it on its way. He asked himself the same question. Why had he bothered, with so much teeming ephemeral life around him? Because, he concluded, he was on the side of life.

That seemed a good enough answer to me. We couldn't abandon the tiny turtle to its newborn quandary.

Naturally, I hope it grows to adulthood and eventually returns to the beach as a huge turtle to continue the process of turtlehood. In my thought, this is going to happen. It will not know it was aided, just a little, but in a crucial way, or that its name is Jorge. But we do.

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