Impermanence

by Anne Visser Ney

By the time the dogs and I arrive at the beach, the loggerhead is long gone. Only her eggs, telltale nest excavation, and crawls remain as testament to her migratory and evolutionary perseverance. It is a humid gray morning right after dawn during high turtle nesting season in west-central Florida. I have come to the beach early to enjoy the solitude and let my two Carolina dogs have the run of the six-hundred-yard long leash-free zone.

There are no other dogs or humans this early but I do not imagine that we are alone. Something as palpable as the humid Florida morning envelops the dogs and me although they do not seem to share my reverent sentiment as they bounce over the dunes like energetic coils.

The beach! The surf! The race!

I consider the dogs, myself, and the turtle, evidenced by the nest. It seems we could be arranged along a continuum of being. The exuberant canines, my more considered actions, and the turtle’s ancient deliberations: Canis lupus familiairis, Homo sapiens, Caretta caretta.

I smile at my thought, by the time the dogs and I arrive, which I only meant with respect to the moment of this morning, this day. But the phrase, like all things, is relational. What is time?

By the time the universe expanded from its seminal point. By the time stardust coalesced into the Solar System. By the time C. caretta refined itself over forty million years, H. sapiens over two hundred thousand years, C. lupus over thirteen thousand years. By the time the nesting loggerhead was seventeen or twenty-five or thirty-three; summer nesting season returned; darkness fell, then gave way to morning; by the time I loaded Hunley and Cotton into the CR-V and drove to Fort Desoto Dog Beach. By the time we arrived, she was gone back to sea.

By the time I reach the crawl near the far boundary of the dog leash-free zone, the ranger’s ATV headlights are bouncing along the dune line in its own slow crawl as the morning patrol looks for freshly dug nests.

ii.

I wait for the ranger nearby the nest hoping to witness a uniquely human action: conservation, expressly to mitigate damage humans have inflicted on another species. My dogs lack this compulsion.

Instead, in a nod to their recent appearance on the species stage, my Johnny-come-latelies display intense curiosity about the nest, maybe even hoping to find an egg or two to snack on. They snuff around and jockey to get closer to the already-crumbling hillock of sand between the nest and the water. As the ranger pulls up and parks her ATV I chuck a tennis ball down the beach to distract them. They race away.

The ranger and I exchange hellos as she takes two plastic boxes from the ATV; one filled with nest relocation paraphernalia, the other one empty. The cargo bay also holds plastic debris — I guess her morning rounds include nests and trash — amongst the trash pile is a child’s plastic shovel, the kind used to build sand castles, dredge moats, and tunnel to China. Its blade is a bright green turtle carapace topped by a dopily smiling turtle’s head with big, round, eyes.

“There’s an irony,” I say.

“Right,” the ranger says.

The uphill crawl is the turtle’s path from the water’s edge to the niche between beach and dunes where they become covered with vining sunflowers and tall, feathery grasses. Here the turtle turned parallel to the water and nestled in before clearing her nesting site in earnest with her back flipper’s claws. A side chamber is dug, once the larger excavation is deep enough, into which the eggs are deposited.

The ranger burrows down two feet before she feels around and locates the side chamber. She measures the chamber’s exact depth, records the data on her clipboard, and begins to remove the leathery tough but vulnerable eggs from the sand to the second plastic box. The clutch has a little more than half a loggerhead’s average, fifty-four in all.

I think of them: fifty-four lives, twisting themselves from zygote to hatchling according to genetic codes switched on and off in precise order. If visible as light their developmental sparks would make the flashiest firework display.

iii.

Loggerheads nest in all of the world’s tropical and subtropical oceans but the highest concentration of Atlantic nests is along the Southeastern United States and Gulf of Mexico beaches. They have nested here since the end of the Pliocene, three million years or so ago, when the isthmus between the Americas closed and the Atlantic and Pacific basins were no longer connected by temperate seas.

Carolina dogs, now registered as a rare breed of native domestic canines, arrived in the Americas with their dingo-like yellow coats, pointed ears, white shoulder patches, and fishhook tails, alongside Indo-Americans crossing the Bering Land Bridge some ten thousand years ago.

Logically, the dogs are natural predators of loggerhead nests.

And my forebears, economic migrants, Dutch and English and Irishmen, arrived in the Americas in the second half of the nineteenth century, nearly four hundred years after Hernando De Soto, after whom this county park is named, set foot in what is now Florida.

The dogs race back and forth along the beach a dozen times before the ranger pauses to tell me the nest will be relocated a few hundred yards up the beach, around the corner defining the end of the barrier island, and onto a dune facing the Gulf of Mexico proper. There it will be away from the busy dog beach and, importantly, removed from the shipping channel that carries large merchant vessels around the point to and from the Gulf and Tampa Bay’s commercial ports.

As if to emphasize the ranger’s concerns we watch as a merchant ship sails into view around the corner on its way to port. She nods toward it knowingly and stows her boxes — tools, precious life — and climbs onto the four-wheeler.

Hunley has also seen the merchant ship. He rushes to the water’s edge, dancing and barking with excitement at its appearance. He is a swimming dog and has learned that the ship’s passage means long, curling waves coming ashore on which he can surf.

iv.

Tampa Bay, one of the country’s largest estuaries, stretches twenty-six miles from Fort Desoto to Port Tampa and is wide enough that the far side is often visible only as a glow of light on the horizon at night. In terms of tonnage handled, Tampa is the country’s sixteenth and the world’s twenty-second largest port. The channel is constantly being dredged somewhere along its length, including another ten miles extending offshore into the shallow Gulf of Mexico.

Ships arrive at all hours of the day and night carrying goods to and from the world’s global economy: container ships laden with Chinese manufactures via the Panama Canal, tankers bringing Gulf oil to Tampa refineries, trampers carrying Central and South American produce to American markets. Outbound fertilizer boats leave with Florida phosphate headed for world agro-industry. Cruise ships ferry passengers to Cozumel, Cancun, the Caymans, Jamaica, and the Florida Keys.

A merchant vessel appears like two football fields rising seven stories above and four stories below its waterline, displacing tens of thousands of tons of water. It will have at least two engines aft and another one on the bow powering propellers twenty feet in diameter that drive water across twin rudders fifteen feet long by eight feet wide. It is pulled, not pushed, through the water by a vacuum created forward of the spinning props.

This vacuum indiscriminately sucks waterborne objects of all kinds into its stream and through the props where they will be chewed to pieces: plastic bottles, driftwood, lifejackets lost overboard, and shrimp, manatee, and turtles.

A nearby animal graveyard testifies to a ship’s destructive power: propeller-slashed manatees, mangled and stranded turtles, and, beneath one great hump of sunflower vines, palmettos, and dune grass, a fifty-foot Bryde’s whale that died of blunt force trauma when it collided with a passing vessel.

It takes about six minutes for the ship’s wake to reach the beach as a train of long, even combers. Hunley has swum out across the flooded shallows, turned, and is happily riding the surf back to the beach. Cotton, who is wary of water, rushes back and forth on the beach, barking, one pointed ear flattened back, the other on high, vertical alert, in the pose I have come to recognize as a dingo warning.

v.

Crawl and kraal are homophones but are not interchangeable terms. Crawl is the set of tracks a female turtle leaves along the sand during nesting. Kraal is a pen in which captive sea turtles are kept between capture and processing.

The turtle crawl is a distinctive mark, unique as a fingerprint. Biologists analyzing crawls are able to determine which turtle laid what nest. Each appears as a trail of two- or three-foot long imprints flanked by smaller, almost feathery sweepings made by the turtle’s sturdy, clawed, flippers as they propel the turtle up the beach.

A reproducing female lays two to four clutches during the short, summer nesting season; after her last clutch is laid her crawl may not appear again for several years. An average clutch holds one hundred and twelve eggs.

Florida has the highest concentration of loggerhead nests in the Western Atlantic; the 2016 census was 89,295, including four hundred twenty in Pinellas County where I live. I try to imagine forty-seven thousand hatchlings in my county alone, all of them struggling up from below, driven to the sea.

Like all sea turtles, loggerheads return to their natal beach to lay their eggs. Males do not return to land although nobody is quite sure whether insemination occurs close to natal beaches or much farther away: only that it happens at sea.

Before she heads away, the ranger takes the time to erase the crawls to and from the water. This ensures that other patrols — volunteers, or eager civilians — do not report a nest that has already been recorded and relocated to safer environs. The ATV idles while she scuffs back and forth across the turtle’s tracks.

I think of the Zen master Dogen’s words, that we must be deeply aware of life’s impermanence.

vi.

Kraal comes
from Afrikaans and Portuguese and means corral. To confuse crawl and kraal, as I once did, is to confuse life’s perpetuation with its demise.

Like many Florida transplants, my first exposure to the term kraal was by way of an infamous Key West waterfront bar named Turtle Kraals, which is a typical Keys establishment boasting lots of beer, twangy Jimmy Buffett style musicians, and open doors through which steady trade winds blow. The bar has a rickety old boardwalk leading out over the water and to the pens for which the bar is named.

Each pen is a rectangle composed of wooden pilings surrounded by wire fencing extending from just above the water’s surface to the bottom; each rectangle measures twenty-five by forty feet (or so). Today the four or so remaining kraals are used to sequester injured sea turtles belonging to any or all of Florida’s five protected marine turtle species: loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, and green sea turtles.

If you visited Key West a hundred years ago, at the height of its turtle fishery industry, you would have seen dozens of kraals lining this western embayment, each kraal teeming with green sea turtles awaiting processing in the adjacent canneries.

Green sea turtles are known scientifically as Chelia mydas: turtles of gold. The gold they brought to their human hunters was that of their rich, delicately flavoured, green-tinted fat, widely prized as a soup base by chefs all over the world.

The ship and its wave train have passed. The bay here is quiet again. The dogs and I study the crawl, or what is left of it, as the ATV lumbers on down the beach. I watch it leave and consider Dogen’s admonishment concerning impermanence. Surely nothing lasts forever. But as fragile and ephemeral as one life is, our many lives collectively seem to me to be as tenacious as the turtle’s will to nest.

vii.

Think of life: survival of the replicating gene over evolutionary time. Think of how tenaciously life has survived in spite of continental collision and drift; environmental cataclysms from Carboniferous hothouse through millennia-long glaciations; and population pressures from mass killings through mass migrations.

The Columbian Exchange began in the 15th century as European explorers opened the doors on the Age of Discovery. The Exchange was, and arguably is, the world’s first rapid-onset and most durable set of migrations. The world changed as a plethora of plants, animals, disease organisms, and technologies crisscrossed the Atlantic.

By the time Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida in 1513, indigenous peoples had well-established turtle fisheries, including C. mydas. That same year his crew took one hundred sixty green turtles in a single evening at the Dry Tortugas, at the western end of the Keys’ string of islets.

Six and a half million green turtles alone comprised just the Cayman Islands fishery by the mid-seventeenth century; when this population was exhausted a hundred and fifty years later, turtlers seeking fresh populations to exploit relayed that Central American waters were a turtle “mother lode”. I try to imagine turtles as far as the eye can see, crowds of olive, green, speckled, leathery turtles all quietly sailing through clear, shallow, tropical seas.

The U.S. turtle processing industry, centered in Key West, peaked at the turn of the last century but held strong through the 1950s. So many there were for the taking that initially they were fished from land. Hunters simply waited for reproducing females to crawl ashore. A man, or two or three if the turtle was old and large, armed with long-handled levers, “turned turtle” then waited for boats to retrieve the immobilized animals for transport to the kraals to await slaughter. The nests were raided; the eggs eaten or sold.

By the first half of the twentieth century the industry shifted fishery methods to netting turtles which could be landed live and held in kraals until the shoreside canneries were ready to process the slaughter into cans of meat, soup, or fat for export.

Loggerheads were also hunted nearly to extinction, for their tender flesh and edible eggs although green turtles paid the greater price for their delicacy. In 2016 the state recorded only 5,393 green turtle nests. Not one was in Pinellas County.

It is quiet again after the ATV turns the corner onto the Gulf side beach where the ranger will reverse-order her actions: rebury the eggs, mark the nest, and cover it up including with wire mesh in the hopes that other predators — raccoons, mostly, here — content themselves with tipping campground garbage bins and leaves the nests alone.

viii.

On average each hatchling will emerge eighty days after the eggs are laid, measure just under two inches in length, and weigh three-quarters of an ounce. A nest incubated in temperatures exceeding ninety degrees Fahrenheit will produce mostly female hatchlings while one incubating below eighty-two, mostly males. At eighty-six degrees, nature’s variations notwithstanding, the nest will produce half of each gender, on average.

By the time hatchlings break free, the mother’s crawl will be long gone. They will emerge at night when predation pressure is lowest, and flipper like twinkling sparks toward the sea, which they may recognize by its brighter sheen when compared to the land, as starshine and moonlight luminesce with the water’s reflection.

If they make it to the water they will be pulled offshore by the undertow current. If they make it to deeper water they stand a slim chance of growing to maturity, a feat for which they will have to avoid sharks, seals, killer whales, commercial fishing nets and lines, plastic flotsam and jetsam, human hunters, and the massive ships powering the global human economy. After running this gamut for two decades or so they may mate and, at least for females, return to their natal beach to perpetuate life.

I leash the dogs and follow the ATV past the leash-free zone signs to see for myself the difference that six hundred yards makes in hatchling terms. The difference is subtle, measured in degrees so small as to be asymptotic to the mother’s intent. At least the new location removes the ship channel obstacle from the young turtle’s path. And the wider Gulf beaches opening to sea may diminish backlight from seaside towns on the bay’s opposite shore, reducing the odds the hatchlings will become confused and swim toward brightly lit land instead of toward open ocean.

Yet there may also be more predators over there: ghost crabs, snakes, and seagulls. But maybe the importance lies in giving the hatchlings a chance to make it past the nest. To give them an opportunity to move: to try.

We head back to the dog beach where I unsnap the leashes. The dogs have run themselves breathless by now, though, and gaze quizzically as though wanting to know why our routine has been changed. I tell them all life is impermanence, including their regularly scheduled rounds. But they are dogs and do not catch my meaning.

They tag alongside as I return to the nesting site. The six-inch high bulwark that marked the water side of the nest is leveled; the hole the ranger dug to retrieve the eggs has been filled. I strip to my swimsuit and toss my tee shirt and shorts next to the evacuated nest then follow the erasures down the beach and continue their trajectory into the sea, which is flat and calm, recovered from the ship’s wake.

ix.

All things, living or not, are fated — or damned — to move. Heisenberg’s particles, which flit so quickly they cannot simultaneously be clocked and weighed. Einstein’s molecules with their Brownian motions that jostle dyes through water and smoke particles through air. The sand into which the crawl was etched in shield-like precision.

The obliterated crawl now dusted with the ranger’s waffle-soled sweepings.

Life became enclosed in self-replicating cells and the genetic material itself migrates through generations, time, and space. Robins return north in spring just as turtles arrive in their annual reproductive march. Migrations of all kinds are manifest impermanence.

I follow the crawl’s ghostly remains back to the water’s edge and wade along its trajectory into the bath-warm shallow bay.

x.

The water is lower than my knees for a dozen yards out. Hunley pads beside me and Cotton follows reluctantly, wanting to stay with the pack, wanting to warn us away according to her deep suspicion of the sea. I shuffle my feet to roust stingrays from the bottom lest I step on one and become lashed by its venomous barb.

The water reaches my waist, then bust. Hunley swims alongside in slow, easy dog paddles. We swim together as far as the line of buoys dividing the bathing from boating areas. It is an arbitrary line making no difference in the larger scheme of things than the six hundred yards across which the turtle nest has been moved.

I hesitate to swim farther although no boats large or small are in sight. Even if a ship were present, the channel is too far and the flats too shallow for any passing merchant to threaten the dog or me. No, I hesitate because of my healthy respect for wild things, most of which have, in species terms, far outdistanced me already. The stingrays, the bull sharks, even the powerful dolphins that are fishing back and forth another ten yards out.

Still, I swim into the deeper water as along the path I imagine the loggerhead took on her journey back home to the sea. She might have felt lighter for the fifty-four eggs laid and another migration completed. Or maybe she left with a heavy heart, weary for having given part of herself up to the unknown future, or because the eggs and their buoyant lecithin had been let from within.

In any case she must have felt newly powerful leaving the land’s cumbersome gravity. I breast stroke before diving deep, pretending I am an ancient turtle. I dive deeper than Hunley’s childish splashings, deeper than the humans’ Leviathan ship’s throbbing propellers, as deep as the place that sand grains ceaselessly rock as they are ground to silt.

On the bottom I stop and listen if to murmurings from a future time. Cotton barking faintly from the beach, my own heart thumping in my ears. I try to hear the mother turtle’s stately, powerful movements through time but they are beyond my hearing, beyond my understanding.

When I return to land, Hunley in tow, Cotton tosses her head to tell me it’s past time to go home. The Florida day has arrived as its own bright self. The palpable envelope I felt when I arrived is rapidly dissembling around me. It was impermanent, too, I realize, a dissolving convergence that existed when the ranger, the dogs, the turtles, and I all met in one singular moment in time.

Anne Visser Ney is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and former fisheries biologist living in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Ruminate, and The Fourth River. She holds an MS in Biology (Georgia Southern University, Marine Ecology) and an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.