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Releasing a sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

The Weight of the World

Prose + Photographs by Amy Yee

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2021 kicks off the United Nations Decade on Ocean Science. Meanwhile, a local conservation group in Watamu, Kenya races to save endangered sea turtles—by enlisting human allies.
 

Henk

When I first saw Henk, he lay motionless in an empty pool in the outdoor clinic ringed by lush tropical trees. His grisly wound nearly made me gasp. Henk’s left front flipper was a ragged stump that revealed grayish meat and white bone within. His looming silence belied whatever life or death struggle had brought him here.

The turtle’s mottled gray-green carapace formed an enormous hump on the concrete floor of his shallow pool. He was much heavier than the average football linebacker, we would soon discover. His shell was about three and a half feet long and nearly three feet wide. Three of his flippers extended like fleshy oars almost two feet from his body. Henk’s leathery head and tail were outstretched. His dark, shiny eyes resembled oversized lychee pits. He didn’t blink even when I bent down near him for a closer look.

Injured sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

Sea turtles are reptiles that have existed for at least 110 million years with little physical change to their sturdy systems. In the water, they are agile and powerful. The fastest species can swim at speeds exceeding 20 miles per hour. But on land, they can’t move quickly and when injured like Henk, they are strikingly helpless. Unlike land tortoises, sea turtles can’t retract their limbs or heads into their shells or the leathery collars of their necks. This may seem impractical, yet sea turtles are so hardy that they somehow survived dinosaurs. Green turtles like Henk once swam chock-a-block in the Caribbean Sea like a living carpet. When Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492, he encountered so many turtles in the Caribbean that his fleet had to stop for hours to let the migrating reptiles pass.[1] Yet today they are an endangered species due to human activity such as fishing and environmental degradation—code for pollution, damaged nesting grounds and other destruction.

Local Ocean Conservation Needs Your Support

The COVID-19 shutdown has drastically cut Local Ocean Conservation’s funding, which will last only until March 2021. The local fishing communicty is also suffering from lack of tourism. To donate to Local Ocean, click here or learn more at localocean.co.

The turtle clinic tending to Henk is on a plot of land overgrown with the greenery that erupts during Kenya’s torrential rainy season. The facility is part of Local Ocean Conservation, a homegrown nonprofit in a town called Watamu on the edge of the Indian Ocean.

For days, rain had poured from the sky and pounded flimsy tin roofs. Fat, red-black millipedes inched along the dirt paths on their brush-like undersides. Puddles the size of small ponds rendered shoes useless so I waded barefoot in ankle deep water. Palm-sized land snails carried white bugle-shaped shells on their backs; their portable shelters reminded me of miniature covered wagons. That morning, when the rain had finally stopped, I went to the clinic to see if anything was happening. There, Henk lay waiting.

Injured sea turtle in tank with helper.  Photo by Amy Yee.

The reptilian patient mesmerized me. But Lewa, a petite Kenyan on staff at Local Ocean who was surely less than half Henk’s weight, sat nonchalantly on the pool’s edge, swinging his bare feet as he filled out paperwork with details about the massive creature. Local Ocean staff had brought Henk to the clinic the previous night after Kenyan fishermen called to report a green turtle they had found. Staff drove nearly an hour to fetch him. Now, in daylight, the team assessed Henk and his terrible injury. Someone speculated that a shark could have ripped off Henk’s flipper. Yet his flesh and bone seemed too neatly serrated; a poaching attempt with a machete was possible, too.

Local Ocean staff set about their work. Four men grabbed the edge of Henk’s carapace and hoisted him into a canvas harness. Their faces grimaced as they heaved the turtle onto a scale hooked to a pulley, then threw their weight onto a rope to lift Henk off the ground. He was trussed up in the harness but the carved mosaic pattern of his head peeped out from the canvas. Even amid all the jostling, Henk’s obsidian eyes seemed prehistorically all-knowing above a pair of dainty nostrils. His yellowish chin remained stiff  and his mouth was set in a dignified line. As he dangled in the air, his giant leathery flippers protruded like wings—except for the stump of torn flesh pressed into the canvas. Soon, bright red blood dripped onto the floor from that ragged flipper.

Henk weighed 260 pounds and staff estimated he was approximately 40 years old. It seemed remarkable that he could become so gargantuan on his adult vegetarian diet of seaweed, seagrass, and algae. With great luck, a green turtle can live up to 80 years or more—but that’s with limbs intact.

The men gently lowered the creature to the ground and returned him to his empty pool. When released from the harness, Henk tried scrambling slowly around but found no exit.  He pressed his face against the wall. His carapace heaved with reptilian breath and he released an aspirated sigh, the first sound I had heard him make.

Injured sea turtle.  Photo by Amy Yee.

Lewa filled the pool with water from a hose. The young Kenyan had worked at Local Ocean for eight years and was used to seeing turtles with all kinds of injuries and ailments. On a given day, the clinic’s patients might include a turtle with a fishing hook in his throat; another with grotesque, cancerous tumors covering his eyes; a tiny hatchling waving flippers like a wind-up toy; or a starving turtle weakened by a gut full of plastic.

Since its founding in 1997, Local Ocean Conservation has treated more than 650 turtles in its rehabilitation center and clinic, the only one on the East African coast. Local Ocean has also conducted nearly 21,000 turtle rescues and released most of them back into the ocean. But even if Henk survived his injury, his fate was tenuous. As water filled his pool, the hulking green turtle sat until he was submerged. There he remained, still as a stone.

Henk’s ancestors perhaps had nested on a primordial beach with dinosaurs. Cultures from the Iroquois of North America to the Moche of Peru feature turtles in their creation stories. In Hindu mythology, turtles carry the weight of the world on their backs, while ancient Chinese civilizations used their shells as oracles to see the future.

Now whether this marvelous turtle with a grievous wound would survive was one more cause for wonder in the weeks to come.

Fikiri Kiponda in hut with sea turtle bycatch. Photo by Amy Yee.
Fikiri Kiponda travels to villages to pick up bycatch turtles from fishermen.

Bycatch

Another day, I rode with Fikiri Kiponda to meet fishermen who had caught some turtles. He steered the jeep over bumpy, muddy roads. They were unmarked but Fikiri, a key Local Ocean staff member, didn’t hesitate as he barreled past shaggy trees and bushes whose branches lashed the vehicle. Fikiri was a serious, compact man. He had left a coveted job as an accountant at a local hotelier to join Local Ocean in 2009 because of his passion for nature. That passion took the form of steely focus as he drove without speaking, eyes fixed on the overgrown dirt path that served as a road. I gripped the door handle as the vehicle rattled briskly over rugged terrain.

Nearly every day, Local Ocean gets calls from fishermen who have accidentally snared turtles as “bycatch” in their fishing nets. Local Ocean’s bycatch program, which returns accidentally caught turtles to the ocean, is key to nearly 21,000 turtle rescues. Over more than 20 years, the nonprofit taught local fishermen to call them whenever they net a turtle. In exchange, Local Ocean gives fishermen the equivalent of about $3 for small turtles and $10 for big ones like Henk—a token compared to what they could make illegally selling turtle meat and oil. The money is meant not as payment, but as remuneration for fishermen’s time, effort, and phone calls. Surprisingly, the system has worked.

When Local Ocean was founded in 1997, this seemingly simple transaction was inconceivable. Green turtles like Henk were prized by locals who ate and sold their meat. They also extruded valuable oil from fat packed beneath their shells, which is reportedly green-tinged, I imagined like Jell-O. In Kenya, the meat of a large green turtle would be worth up to $600 today in a community where an average fisherman makes less than $200 a month. Turtle oil sells for 2,000 shillings ($20) per bottle and is falsely believed to boost strength and immunity, cure asthma, and serve as an aphrodisiac.

Eating turtles was a widespread tradition not just in Africa. During the Age of the Sail, explorers could survive for months at sea because of turtles. Green turtles were “the answer to starvation that plagued Columbus’ voyages.”[2] The creatures were set immobile on their backs with bound flippers and stored alive below deck as convenient supplies of fresh meat. As recently as the 1970s,  the flesh of green turtles was a delicacy in Hawaii and Florida. Turtle meat canneries slaughtered the reptiles en masse and packed them like tuna. One label from a can showed a cartoon of a large turtle with a surprised expression standing up as two men speared it on a beach.

The flesh of hawksbill turtles, however, is useless to humans; it is poisonous because they feed on glassy sponges. Yet for centuries their beautiful carapaces of spade-shaped segments were prized for making tortoiseshell jewelry, eyeglasses, and trinkets. A global law banned the international tortoiseshell trade in 1973, though how well it is enforced depends on individual countries.

Kenyans with bycatch sea turtle.  Photo by Amy Yee.

Many of Kenya’s fishermen live-hand-to-mouth, have big families, and make $100 to $200 a month. Fish stocks in Kenyan waters are dwindling so it is increasingly difficult to earn a living. Yet Watamu fishermen voluntarily take time to call Local Ocean staff who pick up their reptilian windfall to return it to the ocean. Imagine a needy person on an American beach finding $2,000—a low monthly salary in the U.S.—and throwing the money back into the sea.

In Watamu, the turtle pickup spots are usually in villages near an ocean inlet called “The Creek.” We were headed there as Fikiri shifted gears and turned into a clearing. The tires splattered slushy dirt. We arrived in a village where goats calmly nibbled on grass. Chickens strutted around. A thin yellow dog barked vociferously as we approached and a woman yelled at “Snoopy” to quiet down. Two young men soon appeared from a house carrying small green turtles that waved their flippers in the air. They needed no introduction to Fikiri.

One of the fishermen was 21-year-old Steven Jeffal. Another fisherman, Mark Katama, 22, explained that turtles sometimes swam into fishing nets they set in the water. They had caught the turtles a day before in the inlet about five minutes from the village.

Why did they bother calling Local Ocean, rather than killing turtles and selling their meat? Steven seemed slightly puzzled by my question. “We don’t know about eating it before,” he replied. I realized Steven and Local Ocean were about the same age; the bycatch program had existed for most of his life. “It’s a good project to take care of turtles. They made a way so if we catch it, it can be okay,” he said.

Mark acknowledged that “you can earn a lot of money if you sell it.” A 20-pound green turtle can sell for 3,000 shillings, about $30. So why didn’t he? “We have laws in Kenya,” said Mark matter-of-factly. “If you sell it, probably they will kill it. And that will keep you in danger.”

Boy touching caught sea turtle.  Photo by Amy Yee.

Fikri quickly measured, weighed, and tagged the turtles. He swabbed a back flipper with iodine, then fastened a metal tag to scaly flesh with a tool resembling a hole puncher. Children gathered around us. One covered the turtle’s eyes with his small hand and the reptile stopped moving. The little boy had observed rescues before. Fikri loaded the turtles into a large padded box in the Jeep. One turtle  frantically crawled onto another and flapped its flippers while looking for escape.

We returned to the tarmac road for a couple miles, then turned onto a sandy path toward the beach. The day was gray and overcast. Stringy seaweed covered the beach. One by one, Fikiri carried the turtles toward the ocean and set them down on wet sand. Instinctively, they scrambled toward the surf, then launched themselves into the waves. I could see their front flippers pumping like wings. It was as awesome as watching a captured bird released into the air and disappearing into sky. One after another the turtles glided into the water and took flight into the vast ocean.

Sea turtles in holding pen. Photo by Amy Yee.

As we drove back to Local Ocean’s center, I mentioned it seemed remarkable that eating turtles was an alien concept to the young fishermen. Fikiri acknowledged that behavior had changed over the years because of Local Ocean’s work. “It has been there a long time. It gets into their blood,” he remarked. But Fikiri was also realistic. Eking out a living from fishing was getting harder. Fishermen have asked for more money for recovering turtles. They know killing them is against the law, “but they ask, ‘What does the law do for me?’” said Fikiri. If Local Ocean runs out of money, he speculated, they would resume eating or selling turtles.

Now the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a serious blow to Local Ocean. It has lost about one-third of its funding as donors tighten their belts, and tourism—an engine of the economy—practically ground to a halt. The conservation group only has enough funding to last until next March. On top of that, drought is forecast for next year, which would further strain the local community. “2021 will be fraught,” says Justin Beswick, CEO of Local Ocean.

Progress is an ongoing effort, like fortifying a beach where waves and storms continually wash away sand.

Sea turtle returning to the sea. Photo by Amy Yee.

“We were just two housewives!”

When two unlikely women founded Local Ocean in 1997, they couldn’t fully imagine the center’s impact. Nicky Parazzi , co-founder and today Local Ocean’s director, knew nothing about turtles and conservation. She just knew “something more had to be done” about rampant poaching.

Nicky’s husband was an Ethiopia-born Italian businessman and had settled in Watamu. She met him in Nairobi—the prospect of living on the sublime Kenyan coast was a plus, she admitted. After they married, the Sri Lanka-born Englishwoman started a crafts exports business in Watamu. Meanwhile, Helen Curtis, a British-Kenyan friend, was alarmed by the widespread turtle and egg poaching on the beach near her home. Turtles and eggs were a delicacy for locals. Hunting was easy when females crawled ashore and lay conveniently immobile while laying eggs. During nesting season, Helen began patrolling the beach at night and before dawn by flashlight. She enlisted Nicky to join her. They had no science training but nevertheless started Watamu Turtle Watch, which would eventually become Local Ocean Conservation. “We were just two housewives!” Nicky said incredulously.

Nicky Parazzi and Kahindi. Photo by Amy Yee.
Nicky Parazzi, co-founder and director of Local Ocean, speaks with Kahindi Changawa, the organization’s most senior staffer.

She and Helen reached out to international turtle expert George Hughes from the Natal Parks Board in South Africa. They also contacted Jack Frazier at the Smithsonian Institute and Rod Salm at the Nature Conservancy by email, which was still a novel technology in the 1990s. “We didn’t have Google then,” so questions were basic. “‘If we have a turtle nest, what do we do?’” Nicky recalled asking. The scientists offered helpful advice. “If I’d really known how venerable they were in their fields I might not have had the courage to bother them so much!” Nicky confessed.

At first, Nicky and Helen focused on warding away poachers. Before long they realized they were not getting to the root of the problem. They saw they had to change the habits of local fishermen accustomed to selling and eating turtles. An incentive would help. So in 1998 they started compensating fishermen who found turtles in their nets—presumably by accident—with small sums and educating the community about conservation.

Casper Van de Geer, Local Ocean’s manager from 2014 to 2018, explained that the money is not payment. It remunerates fishermen for phone calls, the potentially risky effort to contain the turtle (no easy task for a 260-pound behemoth like Henk), and time spent waiting for pick-up. The money is not enough for fishermen to substantially profit from catching turtles; they could make far more by killing the creature and selling it on the black market.

In 2000, Local Ocean hired two Kenyan staff to meet with fishermen in villages. They were trusted locals who didn’t reprimand people but offered resources while touting conservation. The “community liaisons” taught fishermen practical lessons about sustainable techniques—for example, that using explosives or poison would kill off fish.

Outreach paved the way for economic development programs. Namely, Local Ocean introduced other ways to make money, such as raising poultry, beekeeping, cultivating tree nurseries, and sustainable farming. “Alternative livelihoods,” as this is called in development jargon, takes pressure off the ocean’s resources—including fish and turtles. Local Ocean works with about 400 fishermen in the Watamu area, as well as their families. Watamu Turtle Watch changed its name to Local Ocean Conservation in 2002, to recognize that its work went beyond protecting turtles.

Millions worldwide depend on the ocean for income. Marine fisheries provide 57 million jobs globally, many of them subsistence fishermen like the ones in Watamu. Meanwhile, beaches are beloved and coastal properties are highly valued. Yet oceans and waterways are used to dump garbage, contaminants, and toxic waste. Some 60 percent of major marine ecosystems have been degraded or are being unsustainably exploited. 

In 2016, the United Nations included marine conservation as one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be met by 2030. Within those overarching goals, sea turtles are a bellwether of the oceans and environmental health. They are the “canaries of the ocean” said Nicky. “Turtles can speak volumes for the health of the ocean and our coastlines.” 

However, sustaining turtles and the ocean depends on holistic efforts. “We realized we had to encompass the whole marine environment rather than just focusing on sea turtles,” Nicky added. “It’s a fat lot trying to save the turtle if they have nowhere to nest.”

Local Ocean school program. Photo by Amy Yee.
Students release turtles back into the ocean in one of Local Ocean’s schools programs.

After establishing its bycatch program, Local Ocean started growing and planting mangrove seedlings to fortify beaches and coasts. It organized community trash pick-up days to clean up garbage, much of it plastic, that washes up on shore. It began school education programs to raise awareness. At one point, Local Ocean worked with 30 schools in the Watamu area and connected with 2,500 students per year.

Schools groups and tourists regularly visit Local Ocean, so educational billboards were set up in the clinic. One board displays small bags filled with pieces of plastic  and debris: sharp shards of pink, white, and blue plastic; the crimped top of a food wrapper; tangled gray string. These were found clogging the guts of Mira, a 30-pound hawksbill turtle who arrived at the clinic in 2017.

Turtles mistake plastic shards for jellyfish and eat them. X-rays showed Mira’s innards were blocked. She floated because of gas bubbles in her intestines and couldn’t dive or eat. The staff gave Mira laxatives but she couldn’t excrete the plastic and eventually died. About half the patients who come to the clinic for plastic ingestion do not survive.

Local Ocean instructor with information board. Photo by Amy Yee.
Casper Van de Geer, Local Ocean’s former manager, displays plastic found inside turtles.

 
One afternoon, I rode with Fikiri to nearby Short Beach. It was another gloomy day but at least the incessant rain had paused. A few fishermen waited in a wooden boat floating near shore. One man carried three small turtles to the beach, one by one. He turned them onto their backs so their flippers swiped helplessly at the air. There were several juvenile hawksbill turtles, approximately five to eight years old. Fikiri noted that it was common for fishermen to accidentally catch a tagged turtle multiple times over the years. Measurements and location are logged again. However, Local Ocean is vigilant of fishermen who catch turtles deliberately and bars violators from the program.

After the hawksbills were released, Fikiri handed 300 shillings ($3) for each turtle to fisherman Kai Shoka. I sat next to Kai, who was in his early 40s and recalled how people used to eat turtles not long ago.

“Before, not too many turtles. Now there are more,” he said. I asked him why he releases turtles instead of selling them. Kai pointed out that it’s illegal to possess turtle products and he could be fined 20 million shillings ($200,000).

Sea turtle on beach with Kenyan fishermen in boat. Photo by Amy Yee.

Green turtles are endangered, like other species found in Kenyan waters including hawksbills, Olive Ridleys, and loggerheads. In 2014, Kenya increased the penalty for poaching an endangered species from $400 to $200,000. It was part of an aggressive initiative to stop rampant poaching of elephants, rhinos, and other photogenic megafauna. By 2019 elephant poaching in Kenya had decreased due to ivory bans in China, as well as stronger domestic enforcement and conservation. But law enforcement is less strict for marine life partly because iconic terrestrial animals capture attention—and funding.

Although it cost Kai time to call Local Ocean and wait, he thought it was worth the effort. “We’re giving turtles life. I’m happier with that than going on black market and selling the turtle,” he said.

Kai endured my questions but seemed restless. I was probably his wasting precious time. When I finished, he waded to the boat where other men were waiting for him to resume fishing.

Rescuing a sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

Foot Patrol 

More than two decades after two self-described housewives started scaring away poachers on the beach, Local Ocean had grown into a conservation nonprofit with about 20 employees. Community liaison officers Sammy Safari and Athuman Abdalla had various duties, such as holding meetings with villagers. They also gathered intelligence from locals about poaching and other illegal activities.

Sammy was middle-aged but Athuman was a former fisherman in his 60s. One arm was wizened from an accidental injury he suffered as a young man, yet Athuman was energetic and moved nimbly.

Liaison officer Athuman Abdalla holds discarded mosquito net used destructively for fishing. Photo by Amy Yee.
Liaison officer Athuman Abdalla holds discarded mosquito net used destructively for fishing.

The afternoon after Henk arrived at the clinic, I joined a foot patrol led by Athuman along a desolate stretch called Keani Beach. We were tasked with looking for turtle shells or skeletons discarded by poachers who butchered the creatures on the spot. One corner of Local Ocean’s garden was a makeshift shrine. Shelves were stacked with found turtle skulls, shells, and skeletons. The biggest carapaces and sun-bleached skulls had once belonged to grand turtles like Henk.

Before our patrol, Kahindi Changawa, Local Ocean’s most senior staffer, briefed us: we were not to confront or pursue any poachers. The group of young English and Dutch volunteers didn’t take the warning very seriously. It seemed absurd to think that we would encounter poachers in touristy Watamu. The volunteers horsed around as jovial Kahindi patiently went through safety guidelines.

We set off in autorickshaws that reached the end of Watamu’s main tarmac road then bumped over a dirt one. Getting to secluded Keani Beach required climbing down cliffs made of sharp black coral with gaping, razor-like pores. In the lee of the overhang, a few men were hanging and scaling fish. They eyed us silently. A couple of women sitting on the rocks also watched us. I felt unwelcome, as though we were interrupting them.

After days of rain, the sun had finally emerged. We basked in its warmth over the spectacular seascape. The ocean’s searing azure hues deepened as it extended toward a distant coral reef fringed with frothy, crashing waves. Because of the reef’s shelter, the water here was shallow and relatively gentle, although the wind whistled relentlessly.

Wind whipped shallow peaks as we waded knee-deep into the water. The young volunteers frolicked and chased each other. No one wondered why we were walking into the ocean instead of looking for turtle bones near the shore. We just followed Athuman and Kahindi. Suddenly, there was something strange in the water. Something was very wrong.

The air of levity ended abruptly, like a needle yanked off a record. I noticed a thin green rope  floating incongruously near my legs. It led to a large hump rising slightly out of the water. The sight was doubly unexpected and startling. It took a moment to comprehend what it was: a gigantic green turtle paddling slightly in the water, amid shadowy patches of coral and seaweed beneath the surface. It never occurred to me that our casual, happy-go-lucky patrol could come across a turtle caught by a poacher. Nor that we would haplessly interrupt its imminent slaughter.

Frivolity instantly transformed into urgency. Athuman and Kahindi spoke in Swahili and untied the rope looped around the turtle’s shell like a harness. Hands grasped the edge of her carapace and pushed her through the water. Two others grabbed her meaty front flippers and pulled her, like giants steering an airplane. The reptile floated in shallow water so her belly did not scrape against the cutting coral underfoot. We were at least half a mile from the beach and the coral cliffs seemed small in the distance.

Saving the sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

Soon the water grew too shallow; we would have to carry the turtle a few hundred feet to shore. Kahindi, Athuman with his one arm, and the European volunteers gripped the carapace’s slippery rim and strained under its weight. We wore reef shoes, but the bumpy coral made walking precarious. After lifting the turtle  and madly splashing forward a few feet, the rescuers had to put her down, rest, and regain their grip and footing. They repeated the process in fits and starts. Slowly, the agonizingly distant shore grew closer.

From afar, several men appeared on the beach. Fikiri was flanked by two men I didn’t recognize. I realized they were our autorickhsaw drivers. They were all barefoot but nonetheless waded into the rocky water. The drivers’ long pants were quickly soaked. The extra men joined the rescue and found a grip on the turtle. With reinforcements, the team hefted her and closed the gap to shore. Finally, they emerged from the ocean and set the turtle onto the beach. The team panted and wiped sweat face from their faces.

Bella. Photo by Amy Yee.

The creature was motionless as her wrinkled chin pressed into the sand. She was a large green turtle, later confirmed as female. Her muscular front flippers nestled at her side like folded wings, while her rectangular hind flippers protruded like rudders. She had no obvious injuries. Her carapace was especially domed and etched with an intricate pattern like swirling paint strokes on a shiny, green canvas. She was marvelously beautiful. The next day someone named her Bella. But first there was another challenge. How to get a 200-pound reptile up tall cliffs of jagged coral?

Getting the sea turtle to the top of the cliff. Photo by Amy Yee.

There was only one way: up. After conferring briefly in Swahili, the men hoisted the turtle by her shell and front flippers and began scrambling up the cliff. At various abrasive flat parts, they put her down to re-position themselves, get a foothold on the sharp cliffside and a handhold on the turtle. Then they clambered up, and pulled her by the flippers while men below her pushed. The climb, precarious even without hefting a boulder-like animal, continued in bursts. A few feet at a time, the group scrambled uphill, hoisting, pulling and hauling. Finally, they reached the top and laid Bella on her plastron. The men panted and sprawled on the  inhospitable ground carpeted with rocks and broken shells  to rest before loading her into the Jeep. Throughout all this, Bella was oddly still.

Later, I realized that when we emerged from the ocean onto the beach, it was completely empty. The fisherfolk were gone.

Bella and her saviors. Photo by Amy Yee.

Bella

The Jeep sped toward Local Ocean to admit its latest turtle patient. Staff trussed up Bella in a  harness to weigh her. She was 211 pounds, 37 inches long, and 30 inches wide. Smaller than Henk, her shell was glossier and her carapace was strikingly dappled with black whorls. She didn’t struggle when staff lifted her into an empty pool. But when Kahindi bent to touch her leathery neck, Bella immediately flinched and jerked her head.

Local Ocean had reduced turtle poaching in Watamu but clearly it was not eliminated. Poaching tended to increase during the rainy season, when local hotels and tourist industries have less business and seasonal workers are out of work.

Kahindi speculated that Bella had a spear gun wound in her neck. He was Local Ocean’s first local hire in 2000 and had seen the gamut of turtle injuries. Kahindi guessed that a poacher had wounded Bella near the reef, then floated her toward shore intending to slaughter her. But then our motley crew arrived. Poachers often have lookouts. With warning, the poacher had probably tethered Bella in shallow water to fetch her after we left. Perhaps he was one of the fishermen eyeing us as we descended the coral cliff. But eagle-eyed Athuman had somehow spotted Bella’s slender rope amid choppy waves through binoculars.

Weighing Bella. Photo by Amy Yee.

Dizzy Circles

The next morning, I went immediately to the clinic. Henk was submerged in this pool, stationary as a boulder. Sea turtles can hold their breath between four to seven hours, which seemed to be what Henk was doing; I had never seen him come up for air. Heart rates drop to conserve oxygen—up to nine minutes can pass between heartbeats.

Yet Bella swam around and around in her pool. The water was murky with shreds of feces. It was a contrast to Henk’s pool where there was no defecation. As Bella paddled, she lifted her head to raspily guzzle air and spurt out water. The staff drained and cleaned her pool and filled it with fresh water. When the hose splashed her, Bella agitatedly flapped her flippers.

Local Ocean had called the veterinarian in Watamu to examine Henk and Bella. But he had a waiting list of other patients, mostly pet dogs, and couldn’t come to the clinic that day. Meanwhile, an ancient, now endangered species wheezed, gasped, and swam around in dizzy circles as we helplessly watched.

The veterinarian with a sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.
Veterinarian Faraj Feisal prepares to operate on Henk.

Bloody Lump

When I visited the clinic the next day, another turtle patient had arrived: a mid-sized hawksbill. His carapace was made of shovel-shaped scutes splashed with amber, painterly streaks. But his head was disfigured by two golf-ball sized growths covering his eyes. The mottled cauliflower-like tumors rendered the turtle blind, yet he swam smoothly in another small pool. The tumors were the result of fibropapillomatosis, a mysterious—and likely contagious—disease that afflicts turtles worldwide.

Finally, they made it to Local Ocean. Dr. Faraj Feisal was a young man in his 30s who arrived on a sleek black motorbike with his assistant, a thin middle-aged man named Baya Yaa, seated behind him. Dr. Feisal wore trendy skinny jeans, an ecru long-sleeved shirt, and flip flops. He spoke in Swahili to Local Ocean staff as he looked at the various patients: Bella swimming woozily in her pool, the turtle with fibro tumors covering his eyes, and lastly Henk. His pool had been drained of water so he sat placidly at the bottom. Henk was up first.

Fikiri, Lewa, and volunteers carried Henk to a large table where they flipped him on his shell. He exhaled a reptilian sigh. The alabaster plastron shielding his innards faced up and his flippers hung slack. Dr. Feisal touched the stump of the turtle’s torn flipper, which was dripping blood after the move to the table. Henk jerked his body and inhaled. An eyelid drooped and his onyx eyes narrowed.

Surgical instruments. Photo by Amy Yee.

Dr. Feisal lined up his instruments:  syringes, scissors, scalpels, an electric cauterizer, and a saw. He wrapped a rubber tourniquet tightly around Henk’s flipper, then injected a syringe of local anesthetic into the gray meat. The turtle’s back flippers clenched, his tail curled. His body convulsed with pain.

The vet waited a few minutes for the anesthetic to take effect. Then he got to work. With the cauterizer, he burned through Henk’s tough skin. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. Wisps of smoke wafted from the buzzing cauterizer. Blood dripped faster from the stump. Lewa and Baya Yaa held the turtle down as his head and body shuddered and jerked with a thump. Dr Feisal picked up a pair of scissors and worked them into the burned incision. Henk gasped loudly. The vet continued to forcefully snip the skin of the flipper as the turtle thrashed and twitched. The puddle of blood under his stump grew larger. Next Dr. Feisal picked up the saw. In the pool nearby, Bella bubbled for breath like a snorkeler. She lifted her head and gasped.

Performing surgery on Henk. Photo by Amy Yee.

Dr. Feisal gripped the saw and bore down as he worked it into the flesh of Henk’s flipper and then into the bone. The vet’s shoulders and arms strained with exertion. Henk’s back flippers scratched the air futilely. There was a crunching sound as Dr. Feisal sawed. He muttered something to Baya Yaa. From somewhere, the assistant brought a larger saw, resembling a carpenter’s wood saw. He poured rubbing alcohol on it, wiped with a cloth and handed it to the vet. Dr. Feisal took the saw, grimaced and pushed the blade through Henk’s flipper. Then came the frantic sound of metal squeaking on bone and finally a loud snap. A stump of Henk’s flipper separated from his body to become a bloody lump of meat.

Henk squirmed pitifully and the men used all their weight to restrain him. Dr. Feisal picked up scissors and snipped at the ragged hem of tissue around the amputation. He stuffed the socket of skin with cotton soaked in alcohol. Henk gasped again. The vet removed the cotton, then picked up a needle. He pushed the sutures through the tough reptilian skin like a leatherworker. It baffled me that some people think animals don’t experience pain or emotions. Stoic Henk would have been screaming if he had vocal cords instead of feathery papillae lining his throat. Later it would again be clear that he felt fear.

Henk the sea turtle after surgery. Photo by Amy Yee.

Dr. Feisal unwound the tourniquet and Henk quivered and gasped. Blood started flowing from the flipper. The operation was over. The men eased their weight from Henk’s body and Dr. Feisal wrapped his remaining flipper stump with gauze. The sawed-off hunk of Henk’s flesh embedded with a neat circle of bone sat on the table as though it were a butcher’s counter. The vet washed his hands, then stepped away to smoke a cigarette in a corner under some trees.

When Dr. Feisal returned, I asked if Henk’s wound was from a shark attack. He shook his head as he smoked. The turtle’s flipper had been chopped off with some kind of sharp blade, he told me. Then Dr. Feisal took another long drag from his cigarette.

Sea turtle with fibro tumors. Photo by Amy Yee.
Fibro tumors grow on this turtle’s neck, shoulder, and around his eyes.

An Unsolved Mystery

The vet returned the next day to tend to his next patient: a teenaged turtle with a bulbous speckled fibro tumor on his neck, like a deformed collar. There were smaller, ash-colored growths on all flippers, especially along the wrinkled crevices of his skin.

Lewa, Kahinidi, and Baya Yaa lifted the turtle from his holding pool and placed him on a large board. Dr. Feisal plugged in the cauterizer and held the hot wire to the turtle’s neck. Smoke and a burning smell wafted into the air as the cauterizer hissed and buzzed. The turtle jerked and struggled but three men held him down. Dr. Feisal burned off the tumor on his nape. It fell off like a lump of mold. He worked the cauterizer around other small growths in the wrinkly skin of the reptile’s neck.

The turtle’s white throat  gulped and he breathed laboriously. Blood formed a crimson necklace around his snowy skin. Next, Dr. Feisal held the cauterizer and burned off the growths dangerously close to the glistening ovals of the turtle’s eyes. Small tumors fringed them like obscene tears. For the first time, I saw a turtle blink. He lowered his leathery eyelids and his eyes became ebony slits. His flippers clenched rigidly so they became wooden knobs.

Next the men turned the turtle onto his carapace so he was belly up; he flapped his flippers powerfully. His plastron seemed remarkably smooth and creamy compared to the rough, wrinkly rest of him. But there were tumors on the edges of his flippers and on the delicate, papery pale skin of the undersides. There were growths in the wrinkly skin of his tail and surrounding his anus.

By the end of the surgery, the turtle was surrounded by the sickly debris of severed fibro tumors, perverse lumps. But he would have another chance. The hands holding him down returned him to a pool filled with water. The indignant creature slipped beneath the surface.

Removing fibro tumors from the sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

Fibro affects all species of turtles worldwide, from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Yet its cause, impact, and cure remain one of the “key unsolved mysteries” of turtles, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature. IUCN’s turtle specialist group calls fibro “one of the areas of greatest concern for researchers and conservationists.”

The number of fibro-afflicted turtles at Local Ocean fluctuates but can be alarmingly high. In 2011 there were only four, but cases increased to 15 the next year, then spiked to 53 in 2013. In 2017, Local Ocean had 11 cases of fibro in turtles, then 54 cases in 2019.

Scientists suspect fibro is caused by pollution, partly because turtles with fibro are often found near areas prone to agricultural runoff and other contaminants. However, there is still no evidence to prove this theory.

Nevertheless, there are obvious lessons to learn. Coastlines should not be treated like “our collective toilet bowl,” said Dr. Thierry Work, who studies fibro at the National Wildlife Health Center in Hawaii.

 

Like a Queen

At last, Dr. Feisal attended to Bella. His examination involved peering at her neck. She had no obvious wounds, but the vet affirmed she likely had a spear gun wound on her nape. Fishing with spear guns was illegal in Kenya, yet they were often used by poachers who snorkeled in shallow water to hunt prey. The unprotected neck was a choice target because it damaged a turtle’s spine and incapacitated her. Bella could be suffering from internal bleeding. Dr. Feisal recommended shots of vitamin K for nerve repair, antibiotics, and anti-swelling injections.

He recommended draining Bella’s pool and laying her on an inclined board. Dr. Feisal claimed this would help her breathe though she squirmed uncomfortably. In a few days Local Ocean staff would take her to the biggest nearby health facility—a human hospital in the city of Malindi, a 40-minute drive. A few years before, Local Ocean took a big green turtle to the hospital for x-rays. They brought her in as curious, excited human patients looked on. Tests showed a spear wound on the turtle’s spine.

I imagined watching Bella carried into that hospital, like a queen on a divan in need of urgent care. But that day, staff wrapped Bella’s carapace with wet towels to keep her from drying out. She was pitifully helpless in a most un-regal position, splayed on a board atop old, stacked tires in a concrete pool.

Sea turtle hatchlings. Photo by Amy Yee.

Wind-Up Toys

The next day Kahindi drove the newly tumor-free turtle to the beach. The teenaged reptile flinched angrily whenever people touched him, but once Kahindi placed him on the packed sand near the surf, he didn’t hesitate. He made a beeline for the ocean, scrambled into the waves, and propelled himself far, far away from those hissing hot cauterizers.

Kahindi went back to the Jeep and retrieved a plastic basin. Inside were two hatchlings  that a fisherman had brought to Local Ocean. The tiny Olive Ridleys were smaller than the palm of my hand. Their miniature carapaces already showed faint ridged lines. They waved their flippers like wind-up toys. After the excruciating scenes of Henk’s amputation and the fibro surgery, it was a relief to witness life instead of pain. I couldn’t hold the hatchlings for fear of transmitting bacteria, so instead I watched them scramble in the basin.

Analyzing a failed nest. Photo by Amy Yee.
Staff analyze a “failed nest” and sea turtle eggs that didn’t hatch.

Kahindi waded into the ocean to release the youngsters. They worked their flippers frenetically, but waves kept washing them back toward shore. Kahindi pushed them back into the sea. There are countless threats to turtles, and especially to vulnerable hatchlings. More than 90 percent are eaten by predators.

The infants eventually disappeared among the waves to begin the mysterious journey of their lives. We have no clue as to what turtles do between hatching and when they return from the open ocean to graze in nearshore foraging pastures,” notes Dr. Work of the National Wildlife Health Center.

Turtles are fundamentally difficult to study since they spend most of their lives in the ocean and migrate long distances. GPS trackers are expensive to acquire and maintain—those mounted atop carapaces tend to fall off. Considering bacteria from my hand could sicken a hatchling, it is a wonder that any survive to adulthood at all. And it is a staggering miracle that they can grow to be giants like Henk and Bella.

Sea turtle hatchling in egg. Photo by Amy Yee.

They Might Be Giants

The odds of survival are long. Out of a thousand eggs, only one turtle will live to adulthood. Only females willingly return to land to lay eggs—green turtles reach sexual maturity when they are 35 to 40 years old—so it is difficult to estimate turtle populations and guide conservation policy. The odds are getting even worse: laying eggs, nesting, and hatching has become full of obstacles, literally.

One morning, staff at Local Ocean drove quickly to a Watamu resort. A security guard had spotted turtle tracks on the beach as he ended his shift around dawn. He alerted the incoming guard, who called Local Ocean.

It was a perfect, sunny morning. The guards let us through the resort’s gate and pointed us toward a rocky outcropping a short walk away. The beach was littered with seaweed, driftwood, and heaps of rubbish. Near a cove, plastic rubbish formed a ghastly rainbow of blue bottle caps, pink lids, turquoise toothbrush, broken flip flops, a green aerosol can, a mango drink sachet with a Tanzanian label, faded orange sunscreen tubes, and lots of water bottles. Garbage comes from Kenyan shores and as far away as Mauritius and Malaysia. Turtles mistake plastic for food and it can kill them from the inside.

The meadow of plastic trash must have been a veritable obstacle course for a nesting turtle. Around the world, plastic pollution is growing; three-quarters of marine litter is composed of plastic and tons of plastic waste get dumped into the ocean every year, according to a 2017 United Nations Environment Assembly report.

Through mysterious means, nesting turtles return to beaches close to where they hatched, although they may swim thousands of miles away in the intervening years. There is evidence that hatchlings can detect the earth’s magnetic field. Perhaps they use their internal magnetic compass to navigate back to their birth places, scientists theorize.

Garbage strewn across the beach. Photo by Amy Yee.

The security guard had marked the spot where the turtle tracks ended. Local Ocean staffers began clearing the rubbish  and digging into sand with their hands. Zachary Kibugu, a guard in his 20s, watched while squatting on his haunches on the mat of rubbish obscuring the sand.

After less than ten minutes, there was a cry. They had found the first eggs. Kahindi and a young staffer named Samuel Kazungu held a cloth to shade the spot where Newton Pembe carefully scooped sand with hands encased in green latex gloves. The delicate eggs must avoid sun and heat so the relocation had to be done quickly. Newton put his hand in the hole and extracted the first egg; it was a bit larger than a ping pong ball. He placed it carefully into a plastic bucket then reached into the hole again and again. The eggs, luminous as small moons, had a pungent smell.

Placing sea turtle eggs in a bucket. Photo by Amy Yee.

Within 15 minutes, Newton placed 127 eggs into the bucket. The hole was almost two and a half feet deep and a foot wide. A turtle mother had dragged herself onshore, an intense effort in itself. She crawled over garbage and swept it away with her front flippers. Then she worked her back flippers like shovels to fling back sand and garbage. After dropping her eggs one by one, she filled the hole. The mother patted the sand flat with flippers that swished like windshield wipers to erase tell-tale signs of her nest. Then she lumbered back over the litter-covered beach and returned to the ocean, never to see her eggs again.

The Local Ocean team carried the heavy, egg-filled bucket over the trash-strewn beach. As they passed through the resort, they chatted with maintenance staff . Kahindi spoke animatedly in Swahili and lifted the cover so staff could peer inside at the mother lode. They looked impressed. Not long ago, those protein-rich orbs would have been collected by locals to be eaten or sold.

Shielding sea turtle eggs from the sun. Photo by Amy Yee.

I asked Zachary, the young security guard, how he knew about Local Ocean. He explained in English that he was part of his high school’s wildlife club and that Local Ocean had visited to lecture about turtle conservation. Eight years ago, he and fellow students released a rescued turtle with Local Ocean staff. He remembered watching the animal scramble back into the ocean. Zachary smiled fondly at the memory.

On another night I returned to the resort to talk to Macdonald Chumbe, the middle-aged night watchman who first saw the turtle tracks. He told me excitedly: “I saw the sand was disturbed. If water is high, turtle come and lay eggs. It was stuck on rocks. I helped push it in water. I helped it!” He added: “When you catch it, it can slap! I used sticks to help it and push it in water. Otherwise it can be killed.”

Because of the two security guards, Local Ocean could relocate the precious turtle eggs to a beach called Plot 28. It was a less-populated stretch of low dunes with some scrubby vegetation where nests were monitored, patrolled, and protected. The freshly-laid eggs would be transplanted here, well above the high water line so they wouldn’t get washed away.

At Plot 28, Newton and Samuel dug a hole into the powdery sand. Kahindi and Fikiri held a cloth  over the kneeling men to shield the eggs from the sun. Newton worked quickly to place the orbs, one by one, into the new nest. Finally, he covered the hole with sand and marked the spot with long sticks.

The new nest was only a couple miles away from its original site. But now these eggs were far from the detritus of plastic and garbage choking their birthplace. Samuel and Newton would patrol this area every night in the coming weeks, even during a ferocious thunderstorm.

In the distance, kite surfers floated on top of sparkling turquoise waves, oblivious to the lifesaving operation on shore at Plot 28. The colorful sails of their parachutes flapped to salute the wind.

 

Rain Like Tears

When I returned to the clinic, Bella lay impassively on the inclined board with wet towels wrapped around her carapace. It was late afternoon and the clinic was empty. All was tranquil except for insects singing and whirring in the stultifying air.

Later that night, rain splattered like fat tears on the tin roof of Local Ocean’s lounge. A volunteer gave me the news: Bella had died. Just a few hours before, she had seemed peaceful. I realized her eerie stillness meant she was probably already dead.

After the coincidence of unwittingly stopping Bella’s imminent slaughter, her death was a maddening waste. If only the turtle hadn’t ventured into the shallow water near that coral reef. If only that poacher had a better way to earn money than killing an endangered animal. Bella should only have been on land to lay her eggs, not to gasp her dying breath on concrete.

Making a grave for the sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

Plot 16 

The next morning, the atmosphere in the clinic was somber as staff gazed at the inert turtle splayed on a board. Bella’s formerly lustrous carapace was already dull with death. The whorls on her shell had faded. Staff would bury her as soon as they could, before 200 pounds of turtle meat and fat, skin and bones, started rotting in the heat.

In the afternoon, Kahindi and staffers Dickson Mwanguo, Tuva Kalume, and David, the Dutch volunteer, put Bella in the Jeep and drove to a stretch of beach known as Plot 16. They strained under her dead weight as they carried her to a spot above the water line. It was a brilliant, breezy day and the blue sky blared overhead. The ocean was bright aquamarine close to shore and deepened to sapphire further out. Seaweed formed black ribbons on the sugary sand.

There was only one shovel so everyone took turns hacking a hole into the earth. As the grave deepened, we used our hands to scoop out sand, and then climbed into it to shovel more out. Nearby, a young Kenyan man lounged next to a much older Caucasian woman beneath some trees. They were the only people on the beach. They watched us work. Then the young man approached in greeting and voluntarily took a turn digging.

As we labored, Bella lay next to her grave. Her back flippers were neatly parallel in prim repose. She would never flap her front flippers to soar across the ocean’s depths. Bella’s eyes were open, but heavy-lidded and dim as her body took in her last moments of sunlight and sky. Before long, the hole was deeper than my height. Her grave was ready.

We pushed Bella toward the edge and she unceremoniously toppled in headfirst. All of us, including the unknown Kenyan who accompanied the woman, started filling the hole using the one shovel and our hands. We were done in minutes. All that remained was darker, scruffy sand that had been disturbed and scattered like damp crumbs. Erasing something is far easier than creating it. Bella’s marvelous beauty was gone from the world.

Releasing a sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

Big Green

Alongside pain and despair, the clinic had moments of satisfaction, even joy. Sometimes turtles were perfectly healthy. Such was the case with a large green turtle caught as bycatch by fishermen one day. He was 190 pounds but no one had tried to hack off his flippers, paralyze him with a spear gun, or cut open his shell to harvest his meat and fat. Considering his value on the black market, the turtle was in miraculously good condition. He was, however, understandably testy and hostile.

Staff trussed him up in a harness, weighed and tagged him. Soon after, they loaded the turtle into the Jeep and drove to Plot 16. There was no reason to prolong his stay.

On the beach, heading toward the sea. Photo by Amy Yee.

It was another clear day with wispy clouds painting the cerulean sky. Four men strained under the reptile’s weight as they carried him to the ocean’s edge. On the sand, the turtle was motionless except for his gulping throat. Then with his powerful front flippers, he thrust himself forward into the foaming surf. He quickly melted into the roiling waves, leaving a puff of sand in his wake. The large green turtle wasn’t even in the clinic long enough to get a name, though in my mind I called him Big Green.

As we walked back up the beach, I saw a tall branch stuck into the sand. It was the spot where Bella was buried the previous day. The slender marker swayed in the wind like a flag. The sight surprised me and I asked who put the branch there. Good-natured Kalume admitted it was him.

“Why did you do that?” I inquired curiously.

Kalume smiled shyly and replied simply: It seemed like a good thing.

Bella's grave. Photo by Amy Yee.

Like a Preacher

The survival of a turtle like Big Green is a result of Local Ocean educating the community persistently over decades. “We started with old and respected fishermen who understood what we were trying to do, supported us, and helped get the system started,” Nicky explained. I observed that work in action one hot morning when community outreach liaison Sammy Safari led a meeting.

To get to the site, I rode a motorbike that followed one carrying Sammy. We zipped along the main tarmac road and then onto a bumpy dirt path. Yellow butterflies flitted through the air. We arrived at a gathering place next to some fields. A flimsy tin roof shaded rows of crude wooden benches. There were about two dozen people, mostly women dressed in brightly colored kanga sarongs with children in tow, and some older men.

Kenyan women. Photo by Amy Yee.

Sammy stood at the front and lectured. Before he joined Local Ocean, Sammy was a geography teacher. In fact, he spoke with the cadence of a preacher. At community meetings, Sammy gave lessons about first aid, raising chickens and rabbits, and other useful skills. That day, he spoke about moringa, the fruit of a tree that thrives in the region. Some Kenyan executives wanted to cultivate this antioxidant-filled superfruit.

Sammy’s talk went beyond moringa. He peppered his Swahili lecture with English words such as nursery, avocado, cancer, sausage, and KWS, the acronym for the Kenyan Wildlife Service, the force that protects national parks. The audience occasionally burst out laughing.

Sammy finished his speech with an impassioned flourish. Then it was time for refreshments that he had brought: bananas, orange soda, and mandazi —fried dough —wrapped in newspaper.

I spoke to Mgeni Juma whose forest-green shawl covered her head. She was 49 years old with eight children and a seventh-grade education. Her brother was a fisherman as were her neighbors. Mgeni had been coming to Local Ocean’s meetings for five years. She learned about education, farming techniques, bee keeping, and poultry raising.

Omar Said, 74, was a local leader who had attended Local Ocean meetings since 2007. He wore a blue collared shirt with a brown plaid sarong. A white skullcap topped his deeply wrinkled face. Omar came for information and education. He had already started cultivating moringa.

 “It’s important to gain knowledge,” he said in Swahili. “I’m thinking about the future of my children. Moringa could earn money when I don’t have the strength for other projects.”

“What do you think of turtles?” I asked.

“We used to eat turtles,” Omar laughed. “If you sell it on black market, the turtle is gone once and for all. Now if you get a turtle today, you can see it now and again. Your son can catch it tomorrow. The little you get can sustain your family,” he explained. That was a bit different than Local Ocean’s description of the bycatch program, but it still meant turtles survived.

Local Ocean had made a notable dent in Watamu. But the town is just one of many along the 2,900 miles of East African seaboard. To have a larger impact, ocean conservation needs to multiply and spread. Of course, stronger policies, incentives, funding, and enforcement would also have a major impact.

But local change starts with villagers like the ones Sammy spoke to that day. After they ate bananas and mandzai, the audience gathered to leave. The day was getting hotter and they needed to get back to work.

The "Goth" sea turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

Goth Rocker 

One afternoon, we returned to a commotion at Local Ocean. Staff were weighing a surprise visitor: an enormous loggerhead. This endangered turtle was rarely seen in Watamu. He was the first loggerhead to arrive at Local Ocean that year. Of nearly 21,000 turtles rescues, only 60 were loggerheads—less than 0.3 percent.

True to his name, his head was the size and heft of a log. Whereas green turtles have slender, sculpted heads, the loggerhead scarcely had a neck. Humans shaped like this might be dubbed “meatheads.” This turtle could be called a “jawhead” because of the huge and powerful jaw that could crunch through shellfish, coral, and sand dollars like popcorn.

The loggerhead’s face was also distinct. His eyes were ringed with large, dark circles in a pale face, like a Goth rocker wearing melodramatic eye shadow. He lacked the delicate features of green turtles and instead had a beaked snout like a reptilian hawk. The turtle dangled in a harness as he was weighed. His mouth hung slightly ajar. The loggerhead was 260 pounds, same as Henk, but his whole body seemed chunkier, as though he were hacked from a tree trunk.

Photographing the loggerhead turtle. Photo by Amy Yee.

By the time Kahindi responded to a fisherman’s call and arrived at the village, a crowd of oglers had surrounded the loggerhead. The turtle was flipped on his back but was remarkably uninjured. After he was photographed  from all angles like a rock star, Local Ocean staff returned him to the sea. At Short Beach, four men lugged the turtle to the waterline.

On the sand, the loggerhead lay still except for his gulping throat. Then he shrugged himself forward with muscular flippers and slid into crashing slate-colored waves.

It is magical how quickly these massive creatures move once in the water, how quickly they disappear from sight.

Henk and the healing flipper. Photo by Amy Yee.

Prayer

After Henk’s surgery, Lewa was in charge of injecting him with antibiotics to stave off infection. When anyone approached, the turtle squinted his eyes and flinched at any touch. After some time, Lewa filled his tank with water and Henk lay submerged again like a silent stone.

After two weeks, Dr. Feisal determined that Henk was ready for release. The staff drained his pool. The thick skin of Henk’s amputated flipper was tucked under like a pinned-up sleeve.  When three men lifted him, Henk jerked away. He exhaled loudly and his white throat pulsed as he gasped for air. His fear was unsurprising considering how much humans had hurt him.

Henk weighed 249 pounds after the hunk of flesh had been sawed from his flipper. That was nearly 11 pounds less than when he arrived at Local Ocean. As he dangled while being weighed, he was immobile even without a cloth covering his face. But Henk’s obsidian eyes narrowed. A strand of saliva dribbled from his mouth.

Back in the dry pool, he turned to face the wall to get away from his tormentors. Three men held him as they tagged his back flippers. He flinched, wriggled, then lashed his front flipper on Kahindi’s foot. Amiable Kahindi winced in pain.

Local Ocean staff with Henk just before release. Photo by Amy Yee.

The next morning, the staff drove Henk to Short Beach. It was a radiantly sunny day. The wind whipped streaks of cottony clouds in the blazing cobalt sky. It was low tide and the white beach was almost blinding as it stretched into the distance like beaten silver.

Two carloads of staff came for Henk’s send-off. Nicky was already waiting on the beach. Kahindi put on a snorkel and flippers and waded in the water, anticipating that he would have to help Henk as the turtle acclimated to the ocean.

Lewa, Fikiri, and Dickson draped a cloth over Henk’s head and carried him near the water. They paused and crouched next to him.  When they uncovered his face, Henk sat serene on the dazzling sand. For the last time, I admired the smooth skin of Henk’s head, the deep wrinkles of his leathery neck, and a face that seemed ageless and wise.

With his good front flipper, Henk pulled himself forward, closer and closer to the waves crashing onto the beach. Would Henk be able to dive and swim? Kahini submerged himself, ready to assist.

Releasing Henk into the sea. Photo by Amy Yee.

Then, with a final heave, the turtle slid into the ocean. In an instant, Henk became a blur underwater. I tried to watch him as long as possible, but his shape vanished amid milky, cresting waves. After a few minutes, Kahindi emerged from the water clutching his underwater camera. He had lost sight of Henk. When we watched the camera footage later, it revealed only a cloud of sand whirling in the water like a genie.

The beach, sky, and ocean were achingly beautiful that day in Watamu. We gazed at the glittering sea and searched for signs of Henk. The great turtle was gone. I prayed Henk would stay gone somewhere out in the ocean’s breadth and depth, flying free underwater. I hoped the elements heard my prayer for at least one marvelous turtle.

I brushed tears from my face. Then we walked back up the beach, retracing footsteps in the sand that the wind was already blowing away.
 

Support Local Ocean Conservation

The COVID-19 shutdown has drastically cut Local Ocean Conservation’s funding, which will last only until March 2021. The local fishing communicty is also suffering from lack of tourism. To donate to Local Ocean, click here or learn more at localocean.co.

 


[1] Fire in the Turtle House, Osha Gray Davidson, Public Affairs, 2001, p. 62

[2] Ibid p.64

 

 

Amy YeeAmy Yee is an award-winning journalist who writes for The New York Times, NPR, The Economist, The Washington Post, and others, following years as a staff reporter for Financial Times in New York and New Delhi, India. She is also a narrative writer with three Notable Essays in the Best American Essays; three awards from the United Nations Correspondents Association; and top prize from the Association of Healthcare Journalists for reporting from Bangladesh and India. Amy was a 2019 fellow at MacDowell and her poetry collection was a semifinalist in the 2019 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and the 2019 Crab Orchard First Book Award. Catch up with her on Twitter and amyyeewrites.com.

All photos by Amy Yee.

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