North of Vero Beach, FL – March 30, 2013
I hung over the side of the Fish and Wildlife boat staring at the turtle. It bobbed head down in the water like a buoy, its back flippers barely moved in the air.
“The biologist said to just let nature take its course if we don’t get it in the next try or two,” the officer said to me.
It looked dead, but had some life left in it, enough to dive away every time we tried pull it on board. The slick shell would slip from our fingers and the turtle would disappear for a moment under the surface then float back up to hang in the water.
I tried not to hear the officer’s words. Nature taking its course had nothing to do with it.
The turtle looked stunned and dizzy, probably hit by a boat. While I waited for Fish and Wildlife, another boat pulled up, stared at it for a minute, then began to throw out fishing lines with shrimp on them to try and hook it. They sped off as soon as I yelled at them. A third boat almost ran the turtle over before I paddled between them, playing chicken in the Intercoastal.
Nature’s course wasn’t good enough.
I leaned over as far as I could. My hands hung an inch off the water.
“You gotta hold on, Daniel,” I told myself. “Grab it and hold on. You can’t be timid. You got one shot, maybe two.”
We drifted closer. Waves rocked us up and down. The turtle’s stony head popped out of the water for a breath.
It stared at me like a confused drunk, then sunk under the surface, trying to dive. It sunk a few feet down, then popped back up tail first and hung there.
I took a breath, slipped a rope around one flipper, tightened it, and lunged for the far side of the shell.
The turtle burst into movement, its muscles straining against me, trying to escape, fighting the way life always fights, for keeps. But I fought too, with everything I had, holding on tight because once I’d been too late. Once I’d only only arrived to mourn and watch sunset over the grey skin of a dead manatee, watch waves slide its head and tail across the sand.
Not today, I thought, not today. I will not be late today.
And I held on.
I wrestled a hand to the shell’s lip and wrapped the other around the back then yanked it up. Flippers splashed water into the air, the turtle’s weight dragged me down and almost over the side but the officer grabbed my shoulder strap and we both pulled, the three of us collapsing backwards.
Everything went calm.
The turtle sat on the deck. We both stared at it and it stared at us.
Not today, I thought. Not late today.
Imagine a forest without birds or an ocean without fish, nothing reflects our preservation or destruction of wilderness like wildlife. There is no greater feeling of being in nature than seeing the wild creatures that call it home. The Florida Wildlife Federation works every day to make sure that we can still see panthers, manatees, bears, and other creatures across Florida. I encourage you to go to their website and learn how you can help make sure the next generation has a chance to do more than read about these creatures.