It's twilight at MacArthur Beach State Park, where I've come with a group of journalists hoping to witness an ancient ritual: a loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs. I'm drawn by the all-consuming desire of this primitive animal to return to its birth beach after having been away 25 years or more. A park volunteer tells me some even manage to nest within 20 feet of where they hatched.
How the turtles rediscover their home remains a mystery. Some scientists believe the hatchlings' first walk down the beach to the sea imprints their birth location, while others say they navigate using the earth's magnetic field. Whatever the answer, the sea turtles have returned over thousands of summers, like their mother and their mother's mother, to lay eggs, bury them carefully, and then leave them to hatch on their own.
I wonder what propels them to leave their feeding grounds hundreds of miles away to battle strong currents and predators to get to this specific beach.
A globe-trotter myself, I'm confounded and impressed by their strong sense of home. Like the turtle, I have moved often and traveled far, for work or out of curiosity. I've found places that have felt comfortable, where I've made new friendships or renewed old ones. But unlike the turtle, I haven't been drawn with such singular purpose to one location.
I didn't think much about the sand shifting under my feet until my mother died. At the time I was living in Tokyo, a city I love and where I would remain another four years. After the burial, my sister asked, "So where's home now?" I had no answer then, and I have none now that I am living in Boston, 20 years later. But the question of where I belong has stuck like a splinter under a fingernail; it comes to the fore whenever I travel.
So it is fresh in my mind that night in Florida, as I lean over the boardwalk rail on the humans' side of the beach. I squint through the mist of moist air hovering where the sand's warmth meets the sea breeze. My eyes play games, imagining hulking shapes. I swat at thronging no-see-ums and shift my feet. My colleagues' impatient whispers swell into a din.
Finally, the inky sky parts just long enough for the near full moon to reveal a dark shape emerging awkwardly from the slapping waves. We hush in unison. The turtle shuffles only a few feet onto the sand, looks around, then disappears as subtly as she came. A park ranger tells us she's looking for the perfect spot. I understand, after such a long journey.
The brief glimpse of her awakens something deep within me. A colleague had told me a turtle cries when she is laying eggs, and warned that I also might be moved to tears. As a journalist, I'm trained to observe, to keep my feelings in check while I construct a comfortable barrier of words between myself and my subject. But she already has pulled me well beyond that point.
I am willing to wait all night to see her again. I wonder what she is seeking as she peruses the beach. She has no porch with hanging flower baskets, no soft suction of her mother's bare feet on the kitchen linoleum to signal she is home.
A park spotter beckons with his flashlight from some 50 yards away. He leads us alongside the turtle's broad, comma-shaped flipper tracks toward the berm of the beach. He shines a light on the 2-1/2-foot-long turtle. She already has dug a foot-deep hole and laid her clutch of about 100 eggs. She seems to be in a trance and doesn't notice us. Thrashing as though she is making sand angels, she works to camouflage the nest. Every so often she rests, worn out by the effort of moving on land.
I can see she took great risks to get here: a gash mars the end of the hexagonal markings across her shell, likely from a shark attack, a park ranger says. She shifts, first right, then left, readying for her turnaround toward the sea. I wonder what is drawing her back so soon, what adventures lie before her.
I exhale deeply, and can almost feel her steady breath intertwined with mine. Perhaps home isn't a permanent place or situation. For some of us, it is moments in place and time when where we are feels like where we should be. It comes with the familiar laughter of nieces at holidays in Baltimore, the scent of roasted sweet potatoes from a Tokyo street cart, and the patterns of seaweed that the ocean casts onto a favorite beach.
The ranger signals for us to leave. I want to savor a few more seconds with her. Soon she'll leave a seaward trail of flipper tracks. By morning, the tide will have reclaimed them.
In two months, a new generation of seafarers will hatch and walk down the beach to the sea. The cycle will begin anew.