Hope on the Half-Shell

As the half-moon beams on a recent Thursday night, I stand at the ocean's edge among a group of nearly 50 Miami urbanites and suburbanites, hoping for a thrilling encounter with nature. Young mommies and daddies, grandparents, and droves of their curious offspring are on Crandon Park Beach to witness a natural wonder: baby sea turtles taking their first steps in a Herculean quest to survive.

Dumbstruck, we mall walkers and speakers of several languages are reduced to cooing sounds, marveling at the scene playing out before us. We've just been briefed in an hour-long slide presentation and Q&A about how loggerheads, leatherbacks, and three other species of sea turtles make an annual pilgrimage between April and September to the Miami-Dade shoreline (and up the East Coast) to lay their eggs. Almost in unison, as the first loggerhead hatchling breaks free from his brethren and lunges toward the flashlight beam held by the friendly Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation lady, we utter a universal hay que lindo in lilting tones that shatter cultural barriers, tax brackets, and generations. "Go, little turtle, go!" When the first little bugger hits the water, our cooing turns to cheers and we clap hands, high five, and hug each other. He just might make it after all. I feel so alive!

One down, eleven more hatchlings to go.

This is the work of the Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation's Sea Turtle Awareness program, a rescue effort designed to help increase the world's sea turtle population. Each year Parks and Rec staffers help the gentle giants stave off extinction by moving thousands of eggs laid on our beaches to fenced-in hatcheries. There the eggs are safe to gestate, protected from hungry birds, raccoons, stray dogs, and their number-one predator: man.

What sort of human would do such a rotten thing, you may ask? After all, we live in a sophisticated American city with all the advantages, including plenty of food. Nonetheless a week before our outing, a pesky poacher was arrested at Haulover Beach for digging up a sea turtle nest and attempting to steal protected eggs. Hey, José, you're not in Costa Rica anymore! Harming sea turtles or their eggs can set you back a whopping $25,000 in Florida.

Just as the tides cannot stop a leatherback or loggerhead mom from using our dredged sand to incubate her progeny, nothing, not even the fiery bites of nocturnal mosquitoes and sand fleas around my ankles, can keep me from watching until the last little loggerhead, after a klutzy crawl, is engulfed by his new home -- the vast ocean. Note to self: Always carry insect repellent!

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez