We had only been asleep for a few hours when the camp counselors came around snapping on lights and urging us in dramatic whispers to get up. As we half-tumbled out of our bunks and staggered to our feet, they shoved into our hands flashlights with red cellophane taped over the ends. We clumsily put on our shoes and hoodies, and then, in typical sleepy teenager fashion, trudged out the door and onto the beach.
The sand was wet, the night’s dampening effect having transformed it from its delicious daytime hotness into an unpleasant slippage under our sneakers, whose flat soles did little to help our sleep-deprived selves walk down the beach. After a few minutes, the fog began to lift and the excitement began to wake us fully for the miles ahead.
We walked along the beach for about a mile and a half, the pitch-black foliage on our right, the illuminated ocean at our left. Occasionally, we stopped to swipe the sand at the water’s edge and watch the bioluminescent creatures in the sand make stunning swirls akin to the shape of the galaxy we all shared. The red light of our flashlights caught the ghost crabs, which lived up to their spooky name as they scuttled into view, ferocious claws at the ready, then vanished into the darkness.
As dawn approached, our hushed voices of excitement turned to soft moans of disappointment. We hadn’t yet found what we were seeking, and soon we’d miss our window. We were racing against the clock to find something ancient.
The counselor leading our group made the halt signal. The other group, who had circled the island in the opposite direction, had reached us. We’d made our rounds. It was time to turn back.
I sought comfort in the glow of the moon on the ocean’s surface as we disheartened few made the journey back. The ghost crabs seemed to be laughing at us. The sleepiness set in again.
We’d almost returned when our sand-soaked sneakers suddenly, collectively stopped in their tracks. We all saw it at once. Something shuffling along a few meters ahead, working diligently on some primal project. The scientists accompanying our group hushed our excited whispers.
We’d found one.
She was completing her nest, using her enormous rear flippers to shovel sand over the freshly laid eggs. She moved so awkwardly, I felt embarrassed for her, but reminded myself of how graceful she was in the water.
After she’d finished, the scientists began setting up markers around the nest as she made her slow trek back to the sea. We watched her in awe and intimidation as she dragged her massive body across the sand. Then, one of the scientists invited us forward.
“You can touch her, just on her back, nowhere else,” she said.
Small gasps erupted from our group as we pondered this. Touch her? Touch something so large, so alien to us, something whose evolution dated back millions of years? She was older than we were, both her species and this individual, and as we approached, we realized how massive she was.
It was my turn to touch. I reached out, my hand quivering slightly out of an irrational fear that I’d hurt her. I couldn’t hurt her with my hand, of course, although my species had done enough damage to hers.
I touched her carapace, gently running my palm across a few inches of cool, textured shell. It seemed both hard and soft. I felt in that instant deeply connected to my fellow living things, the ocean, the moon shining down upon this moment, the galaxy swirling overhead. My heart broke for her as I watched her go, filled with fear that she’d be caught in a fishing net or accidentally eat some trash that one of we careless humans had let slide into her habitat. I silently wished her good luck and safe travels, my guilt assuaged by the knowledge that at least her nest would be safe.
We all silently watched her slip into the dark water, where I knew she’d fly rather than shuffle, as we were destined to do, back to our bunks. The scientists would monitor the nest and then ensure that her hatchlings would make it to the sea alive.
That was all we could do.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.