On the last day of May, at 5:30 a.m., I saw my first sea turtle nest. In the quiet of seaside dawn, the fat smiley tracks of the sea turtle stretched from the sea in front of us like a mother’s arms. It was the first turtle visit of the season.
We get down on our knees with Mona and Danny, who poke their sticks into the sand to find the hollow of the nest. When they do, we all, including my friend Crystal, plunge our hands and begin shoveling sand back, 2 feet deep, until we see the white shells of eggs peeking from the sand. Crystal and I are thrilled by the sight of these hidden treasures. The conservationists tell us that they had been scoping the beach each dawn since the nesting month for the turtles began on May 1, with no luck. When they saw the tracks finally, which were made in the dead of night while everyone slept, neither of them said a word, they just got to business.
The 30+ eggs (a small batch; the turtle may need to come back and lay the rest) are then carefully transferred with rubber-gloved hands to a bag and re-nested a few feet back, safe from the sea’s tide. They are placed in the same exact line and same depth. The mother never comes back for them, but that mother was most likely born there on that beach. When the hatchlings climb from their nest about 65 days later, or are set free by a conservationist, their itty bitty brains and instinct record the magnetic field of the very spot they nested and were born. And if they live to be 30 years old (only 1 in 1000 do), they will come back to that spot or beach and lay up to 100+ eggs. If they cannot get to that beach, they will have to find a safe beach nearby, or lay their eggs in the water, which will never survive. Mona ties a red ribbon on a nearby plant to mark the nest.
I had always wondered why people all around the world were so obsessed with sea turtles. I was beginning to understand: their elusiveness, sensitivity, their endangered status, their pure instinct, tug at an ancient string inside of me. One that believes in life’s infinite power, and its delicateness.
Ali, one of Mona’s helpers on her sprawling estate, helps clean the beach each morning and now brings a metal crate to hammer over the nest to protect them from being eaten by wild animals, namely foxes or dogs, or tampered with by humans. Ali has been with Mona for a long time, and she expresses her fondness for him regularly for both his love of the turtles and his hand in the estate. (“I’m not getting any younger! I need help!”). We then pile the sand over the crate and wish the nest good luck.
We are at the Orange House Sea Turtle Reserve in Mansouri, Lebanon, just south of Tyre. This is Mona Khalil’s family home. And since 1999, she has been in the Sea Turtle conservation business. It happened by accident, when she saw a sea turtle climb to shore one night. My friend and I went to the Orange House, which is also a bed and breakfast, for some sun and relaxation after the end of the semester. I hadn’t planned on waking up at 5 a.m. at “the first light” and hunting the beach for a green or loggerhead turtle’s fin prints. Or on feeling there was something miraculous in the experience of seeing the tracks, knowing that this mother, who had started life smaller than the size of a coaster had survived the enormity of the sea, lived 30 years, and came back to drop off her offspring. All of this in the night, when the disturbance of humans is at its minimum. An interesting fact: During the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon War, the beach had the most nests ever, since there were no humans traipsing around. However, it did scare the foxes from the hills who feasted on the eggs. Those foxes are still around. Would you ever think of sea turtles when you think of Israeli bombs?
Mona does not tag her turtles, as is customary amongst turtle conservationists. This is done to keep track of the turtles. But the only time it can be done is while the turtle is laying her eggs since she apparently goes into a trance-like state where she doesn’t react. Mona doesn’t believe in tagging because she puts herself in the turtle’s place. I’m trying to push out 100 eggs out of my body, godammit, and you take the opportunity to stab me with a permanent piece of metal?
When we found a lightbulb washed up on the beach as we helped clean, it led my friend and I to seriously contemplate where in the world this would have come from. The beach is the last place on earth you would have a lightbulb, at least this undeveloped beach. I figured it wafted off the mountain of garbage in Saida. She thought it was a fisherman at sea who would dump a murderous object for sealife in the very entity that fed him. Whatever it was, it wasn’t innocent. Another one of sea turtles’ enemies is a white plastic bag, which dances in the sea just like a jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. Lebanon’s abundance of jellyfish is due to our filthy sea and the turtles’ deaths due to swallowing plastic bags. Imagine what lighbulbs and other pieces of metal or glass do to marine life.
When we were back at the house and having breakfast, which included an awesome spread of Mona’s homemade jams from the trees on her estate (cumquat, lemon, apricot, yum), Mona and Danny chuckled because they had forgotten, due to their excitement, to measure and weigh the eggs. I thought it was remarkable that they hadn’t shown their excitement at the beach. They had been very professional, whereas my friend and I had been yelping and clapping. (Really, we were like kids.) I wondered if their excitement was mixed with relief, as it had taken all month to find a nest. I wondered what it would mean to them to lose these animals.
In a country that has an official mountain of garbage, reaching the Orange House’s environmental goals, depite their remote location along the Naqora road, is often a fight. Mona has fought local fisherman’s practice of dynamite fishing, and eventually won. She had to ask UNIFIL workers to stop buying turtles from the fisherman, and they obliged. But there are some fights she hasn’t won. The beach must be cleaned each day. The day we were there alone, we filled two big garbage bags full – t-shirts, plastic bottles, diapers, caps, etc. The army checkpoint just 2 doors before her estate impedes foreigners’ ability to come to the Orange House as they always need permission from the Saida permissions office as it is an entry to the deep south. They hadn’t always been there, but moved there just 2 years back from just a few kilos up the road for apparently little reason, but it’s unclear. Their base also may shed light onto the beach at night which is confusing for turtles. And Mona has no government backing or aid, but you could have already figured that out.
The Orange House is a reminder of humans’ disconnection from the natural world. How do we protect ourselves? The natural world has become so foreign to us that we feel safer building more concrete around us than green. We poison our food with chemicals because we fear our resources will disappear. Animals are just animals, usually utilized for our needs. We use more and more, and imagine that our garbage is “elsewhere.” We drive everywhere and, at least in Beirut, are obviously damaged by the excessive car exhaust and noise. Danny, a marine biologist from Spain, mentioned his first visit to Beirut and only remarked on the traffic and noise – especially the honking. And when he mentioned honking, I couldn’t believe that I had to go back to that, as I sat on a long stretch of clean beach, an island of sorts, the sun’s light shimmering crystals down to the sea. The sound of waves and thoughts were crisp and clear. The city was so far away. I looked out for the head of the sea turtle poking from the sea, looking ashore for some peace and quiet, a place away from us, to leave her eggs.
My friend Crystal Hoffman has another take on the trip; her post is not up yet, but here is the link to her blog.
If you would like to stay at the Orange House, not only to have a tranquil getaway on a sliver of paradise in southern Lebanon, but also to support the turtle conservation project there with your stay, call Mona at +9617320063 or +9613383080.