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Beneath the shell, a survivor

BOOK REVIEW

Voyage of the Turtle In Pursuit of the Earth's Last Dinosaur Carl Safina Henry Holt: 384 pp., $27.50

August 01, 2006|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

WATCHING "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" as a child, I was utterly enthralled -- mesmerized by the bobbing jellyfish and the way they propelled and fed themselves; terrified of the murderous orcas trolling placidly along until they instigated a ferocious feeding frenzy; held rapt by graceful whales performing their operatic song and dance; apprehensive when the hammerhead shark glided into the lens' focus. My lips seemed to crack with the taste of imagined sea salt, my skin whipped by the passing air as we flew along in Cousteau's iconic Zodiac.

To this day, the words describing that experience are simple and sincere: Wonder. Awe. Emotions that speak not just to a child's wide-eyed perceptions, but to the deep reverence that wells up when we're in the presence of something sacred or profound.

That same wonder and awe are to be found in Carl Safina's magnificent "Voyage of the Turtle," a book that makes the sea air palpable, fills the nostrils with the tang of marine detritus and brings us face-to-face with an ancient, tenacious and endangered animal, the sea turtle. These amazing creatures (especially the soft-shelled Leatherback, to whom Safina pays extra-close attention) are wide-ranging, often swimming from one part of the globe to another in a single season, crossing entire ocean basins and then climbing ashore to nest. They are primordial -- Leatherbacks' existence dates 125 million years -- and are, Safina tells us, "Earth's last warm-blooded monster reptile." Massive in size, an average Leatherback female tips the scales at 800 pounds; some weigh more than a ton.

Adding to the list of superlatives that describe the Leatherback -- fastest-growing, fastest-swimming and most widely distributed and highly migratory reptile -- is a tragic one. Thanks to the destruction of their nesting beaches, to egg poaching that has occurred for decades and to fishing practices that have turned the turtles' ocean crossings into deadly obstacle courses, they're now one of the most endangered species. Population numbers in the Pacific, Safina reports, have nose-dived 95% in just the last 20 years. In the Atlantic, though the numbers in some regions are holding and conservation efforts are starting to pay off, this great creature remains in dire straits.

The book, however, is not so much about the troubles facing the sea turtles as a meditation on the reasons they spark wonder and awe in those who come to know them. The narrative opens with an amazing scene in Trinidad of a female Leatherback lugging herself ashore to nest. In the water, where she's lived all her life, she's been buoyant and near weightless. Now, suddenly, she weighs hundreds of pounds and feels gravity pushing down on her. She stops often to rest as instinct compels her forward, up a particular beach. Once settled in, she digs in unfamiliar sand using her back flippers, "cupping them like hands in mittens, her work unseen and flawless, the work of a blind watchmaker," until she's created a holding chamber -- fully as deep as the author's arm is long -- and deposits the future of her species' survival, patting the beach's surface with her flippers to cover the eggs, and obscuring evidence of her visit before she eases her immensity back down the beach, back into the world of water.

With this kind of intimate detail, Safina ("Eye of the Albatross" and "Song for the Blue Ocean") introduces us to the Leatherback, as well as the other sea turtles swimming the world's oceans: the Green, Loggerhead, Flatback, Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Kemp's Ridley. We travel with Safina to encounter turtles -- and the scientist and conservationists who study them -- in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Pacific and as far north as Nova Scotia. Though Safina presents the ominous circumstances surrounding the sea turtle's chances of survival, he's not a woe-and-doom writer. Rather, he gives us reasons to care about the turtles and when there are reasons to celebrate the species' resiliency, he does so with pleasure. He also details the changes that could be made (and some places are being made) to help ensure the species' survival, including the use of special commercial fishing hooks, turtle escape hatches in fishing nets and the dousing of lights on nesting beaches when hatchlings are due to appear. (Newly hatched turtles instinctively move in the direction of the brightest light, which would lead them to the ocean against which heavenly bodies are reflected in a naturally dark world. In today's world of beachfront development, though, the artificial brightness from these communities often leads the hatchlings into parking lots and certain death.)

This is a joyful, hopeful book that at the same time, doesn't let us off the hook as far as sea turtle survival goes. "[S]ome people never learn, but others do, and ... what people do, good and bad, matters," Safina reminds, giving us ample reasons to be enthralled by this astonishing ancient animal -- and ample reasons to care.

Bernadette Murphy is co-author of "The Tao Gals' Guide to Real Estate."

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