I remain confident that most people want to do right in any given moment. Sometimes however, in the absence of enough information, we must call upon intent as our guiding star.
During a recent walk along the uncrowded beach near my home, I came upon a 6-inch turtle at the surf’s edge. I’ve walked hundreds of miles on this beach and have never heard of anyone coming upon a turtle. Yet, there it was in the beautiful golden hour light. Another passerby stated that it must be a baby sea turtle. I’m always open to witnessing a miracle, so I stayed to see a bit of nature unfold.
The little turtle seemed very focused on swimming out to sea. Yet, again and again the wind-blown waves pushed the creature back onto the sand. Occasionally the surf beached the turtle on its back—which required the luck of another few waves to flip it right side up.
Thinking that I was being a good turtle Samaritan, I eventually waded out into the 54º water and gently tossed the turtle beyond the near-shore breakers. Much to my dismay, it washed back ashore several minutes later—still determined to get off the beach and into the ocean.
Something was clearly wrong here. So I phoned a nearby friend who teaches high school biology. No answer. As the turtle kept heading out into the waves and washing back onto the sand, I searched my phone for info on turtles on the central coast of California.
There was an article on a leatherback that spent some time in the area a few years ago. But the kayaker’s photo of the sea turtle showed that it had long, curved fins. My turtle had webbed legs with claws. Slowly an idea emerged…that this was a freshwater turtle and not a baby sea turtle.
The web eventually pointed me to local chapter of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club (yes, there are clubs for everything!). I proposed my quandary to the fellow who answered the rescue line. After a few texted photos, I was advised that indeed this struggling turtle was a southwestern pond turtle that likely had washed to sea from a local creek. Pond turtles, while not yet endangered, are considered a threatened species in coastal California.
Following the rescue line’s instructions, I carried the turtle up the coastline to the mouth of the creek and then inland a quarter-mile or so from the surf. In contrast to its vigor on the beach, the turtle stayed hidden within its shell after I set in on a gravel bar next to the water. Then, after five quiet minutes, the turtle slowly stuck out its neck. After another long minute, it extended its legs and walked into creek. With the vigor that I had witnessed on the beach, it swam to the bottom of the deep pool and stayed there.
I continue to think about how we respond to subtle clues. In hindsight, the facts that this turtle had claws and was so buoyant in saltwater that it could not dive under waves, seem like obvious telltales that it did not belong in the ocean. Yet, the context of the moment and the rarity of seeing a turtle on the beach provided plenty of distraction.