She twirls and pirouettes, flinging her arms wide, face tipped to the sky. An ocean breaker rolls in, flattening as it bumps its way up the beach but sending her scrambling backward with a squeal. She grasps my hand, and we chase the retreating water back to the sea, always poised to backpedal when the next wave rolls in. It’s okay for her feet to get wet, but she’s leery of the big waves that threaten to tumble her around.
Behind us under thatched beach umbrellas are rows of sun-seekers, but the girl is oblivious to them. What matters is the bright sun and the restless surf and the thrill of waiting until a big breaker crashes against the shore so she can be lifted by her arms to watch the foam pass beneath her dangling feet.
She is 5 years old — wait, make that 5-1/2. The difference is important. Back home in Chicago it’s February-cold and snowy and dreary, but here on the Pacific coast of southwest Mexico the sun rises each day without fail at this time of year, and the sky stays cloudless until the sun dips back into the ocean, spreading orange and yellow streamers into the evening sky.
This is the third year my granddaughter and her parents and grandparents are spending a week together on this Mexican strand. She has learned a little Spanish, though she’s shy about speaking it in front of strangers. Still, when the waiter delivers her leche at lunch, she whispers a self-conscious gracias.
She likes the ocean, especially here in a bay where the surf is relatively gentle. But she likes almost as much to splash in the resort pools, where she can doggy paddle in her turtle-shaped float until her fingertips begin to wrinkle.
Turtles are of particular interest to her. She has learned they’re called tortugas in Spanish, and she’s aware that one evening this week, just at sunset, some newly hatched sea turtles will be released to scramble into the ocean, which will be their watery home for most of their lives.
These turtles are baby leatherbacks and Olive Ridleys (Lepidochelys olivacea), and this stretch of Pacific shoreline is among the premier places for sea turtles to lay their eggs in the sand. Once the eggs hatch, naturalists harvest the babies and keep them in shallow holding tanks for a few days to let them gain strength for their trek to the ocean.
On the evening of the hatchling release, the children at the resort gather on the beach. My granddaughter remembers the drill from last year and the year before that. But she was just a kid then, and a little squeamish about holding a turtle in her hand, its legs pedaling furiously in its eagerness to be under way. This year, halfway to her 6th birthday, she not only holds her turtle but even lets it scuttle a bit on her palm and wrist, guarding it against falling off.
The sun shines horizontally toward the beach as it skids toward a golden ribbon on the water. The children line up just short of the water line, holding the turtles, their shadows elongated on the sand behind them. On command they bend to set the turtles down on the sand and watch them make for the water, driven by undeniable instinct.
The waves are gentle tonight, but the turtles are small and most tumble backward a few times times before they catch a ripple and ride it successfully into the surf and then disappear in deeper water. My granddaughter waves goodbye to “her” turtle, its only trace now a fading set of tiny flipper-prints in the sand.
The ocean holds many dangers, and few of the hatchlings will survive to adulthood — perhaps 2 percent. The ones who do make it to maturity could live to be 40 or more, and the females will probably return to this beach to deposit more broods. My granddaughter could be 45 — make that 45-1/2 – by the time “her” hatchling is finished with life.
That would be an impossible thing for her to imagine, but as we trudge back to dry sand under a darkening tropical sky I ask my granddaughter a more practical question: “Where do you think the turtle you released last year is tonight?” It is a thing she ponders as her own small footprints trail away from the sea toward a future fraught with wondrous possibilities.
Walt Collins is editor emeritus of Notre Dame Magazine.