While I live in the mountains on the edge of the rainforest in Dominica, the island is so steep and narrow (13 miles wide, 26 miles long with 5,000 ft.volcanoes) that I am still in close proximity to the sea. Truly the best of both worlds – lucky me! When I’ve had enough of wrestling with the jungle, I pack up a picnic lunch and my faithful dog Zion and head for the coast.
On weekdays, the black volcanic sand beaches of Dominica are practically deserted, so a well-behaved Doberman like Zion running free is not a problem. The dog loves a sea bath and most times dives right in. But on a recent morning, instead of hopping in for a dunk, he ran up and down the beach with his nose in the air until he zeroed in on a pile of dry coconut branches packed in the shade. When the pile began to shake, rattle, and roll, he started barking hysterically and I suspected some sort of large critter was lurking beneath. But what in the world could it be? A big iguana or, heaven forbid, a boa? I cautiously removed the branches one by one until I saw four scaly flippers pointing towards the sky.
Oh my God! I sucked in my breath. It was an enormous sea turtle that must have crawled onto the beach the night before. Her shell was about three feet in diameter and she probably weighed between 200-300 lbs. From what I could gauge of the situation, it appeared that some wicked person had overturned her after stealing her eggs, tied her legs with heavy rope, and covered her body with trash until they would have a chance to come back and butcher the poor thing. Not on my watch – Island Granny to the rescue!
Zion stood guard while I untied the rope. I tried to flip her over, but she was way too heavy for me to be able to do so on my own. As I struggled with the turtle, I noticed a boatload of fishermen patrolling the shoreline. I knew that the contraband meat was worth a lot of money by the pound, and I knew it could be dangerous now that they realized I had discovered their secret cache. If it hadn’t been for Zion, I might have been in serious trouble.
Now, I’m usually a pretty intrepid soul, but the seaside isn’t really my turf. So I called the police on my cell and asked for assistance. When they finally understood what I was talking about, they simply replied, “Soon come”, which I’ve learned translates loosely into “sometime before dark”. So in the meantime, I found a discarded plastic bottle and poured seawater over the victim. She got really excited at the taste of the ocean, clawed the air with her flippers, and craned her neck trying to right herself. Zion went ballistic again, so I tied him to a nearby tree and then sat down next to the turtle. To soothe her, I stroked the rim of her shell and attempted to rinse away the grains of sand that were crusted in her sad eyes. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Help is on the way,” I said.
Much to my relief and delight, two policemen came sauntering down the beach about an hour later. Hallelujah! They were amazed at the size of the turtle, but didn’t have a clue as to what to do next. I suggested we drag her by her back flippers to the water, which was about thirty feet away. They looked at me like I was out of my mind, but to everyone’s surprise she slid easily along the sand as though she was on wheels. When we reached the edge of the sea, we flipped her over on the count of three, and just like that, she was off. Woosh! I couldn’t believe how fast she disappeared into the waves!
Of course, the boatload of fishermen had also disappeared, but the police took the rope as evidence. There’s a prohibitive fine for disturbing nesting sea turtles in Dominica, but all that really mattered to me that day was that she was free.
When I later related the incident to the director of the Dominica Conservation Society, he gifted me with a book on sea turtles as a reward for my efforts. I learned that there are four species in our waters: Leatherback, Hawksbill, Green, and my turtle friend, the Loggerhead. Her scientific name is Caretta Caretta and her average lifespan is 47-67 years.
Good luck, dear Etta! Wishing you a long and happy life. I’m so grateful I was able to give you a second chance.