Most of the work didn’t have much to do with the sea turtles themselves, but with the hatchery. Digging out the used-up sand, carrying it away in burlap sacks, hauling in the clean stuff. I’d come to this remote spit of land in Costa Rica because they’d offered it, because the bus ride was free, because every weekend I found myself cracking the plastic fun-stopper out of a fifth of guaro with my keys and hiding the bottle behind a loose board in the alley, coming back later to finish it.
The first day it poured, and all the volunteers except me and Tracy quit within half an hour. I could tell the biologists were frustrated, living in shacks on the beach without electricity, trying to do some good in the world, watching their crew of American volunteers huddle under the slat roof. I’d like to say that I kept going out of genuine concern for turtle welfare, but if I cared at all it was in the way that one cares about the bees, the polar bears, the ice caps. It was the type of caring I felt comfortable with, insulated from loss, distant. Tracy, the Costa Rican woman who organized the trip, was the stronger of the two of us, and she helped me lift each sack of sand onto my shoulders before hoisting hers. The two of us staggered off, shirts soaked through with rainwater, sand sticking to our feet, our legs, our arms, dumping the sand and refilling, exchanging the used for the new.
I took a patrol shift in the middle of the night. I walked up and down the beach in the pitch black, scanned back and forth with my flashlight, looking for poachers. Poachers who were really just people who lived nearby, people who were hungry. I saw no one, padded up and down the beach again and again, my whole world one strip of light, of empty sand, silent but for the waves crashing in the darkness. Finally, near dawn, I found a turtle, one fin badly damaged, stranded on the beach, trying and failing to dig a hole. I went back and got a biologist, watched her army-crawl out there until the two of them were side by side, each scooping sand, one with a flipper and one a hand, until the hole was big enough, the eggs laid, the one returned to the ocean and the other to her shack.
In the hatchery the last morning, there was a straggler, a hatchling who got buried deeper than the rest, who surfaced well after his cohort. We weighed him, measured his edges, brought him in a bucket halfway down the beach, dumped him out. I’d watched turtle after turtle scramble toward the water. The biologists told us the statistics, how only one in a thousand makes it to maturity, how the predators wait in the surf for their breakfast, how the lights from the town look like moonlight reflecting off the water and the turtles go the wrong way in droves, away from the surf, to be crushed or eaten or to starve.
It was sentimental, unrealistic, to see that last turtle as anything more than a number, but I named him, ushered him toward the ocean and imagined a life, a hundred and fifty years maybe, outliving me and all of us on this ragged flat of sand, unbothered by the rain or the bending of a tired back or the earthquake that would hit in one week’s time, the epicenter cracking the ground a few kilometers from where I stood watching the little guy disappear into the blue.