Ascension and green turtles in the Atlantic Ocean



To the east of Georgetown, Long Beach appears to be a miniature Somme. It’s as though war games have been played out by an old general. I can picture him, a handlebar moustache, liver-spotted hands moving figures here and there. The wasted eggs of green turtles akin to dead men. Broken shells scavenged away by a harsh ecology. The sea adding its own madness. A metronome rhythm shanking the sands into steep banks that reptiles haul themselves up in the night and back down as the dark passes.


During the evening I join a green turtle tour run by Emily, Daniel, Maddie, and Maria, four British interns. We walk through poor-lit streets, passing a thorn tree where a lone donkey stood all day watching the few cars come and go. With only red light to guide us we move down the track. The sea is oscillating with each wave. There’s no moon but a vivid milky way offers a tight strip of distant stars. The Southern Cross hangs above the peak of Cross Hill where HMS Hood’s guns point out to sea.


We stand still in the warm air as we wait for Daniel to radio back. He’s searching for a turtle in the near catatonic egg-laying stage. These green turtles are the largest of their kind. On Ascension Island the world’s second largest nesting occurrence of this species lasts between December and April. This is a small, young island. The green turtle is an old species. Yet they improbably met across an ocean. The female adults will have been returning every three years for decades. Adult males will return every year, they expend less energy than the females.


When the call comes we tread carefully round the pits, following red light from head torches. And there she is, hauled up on a beach miles from anything else, except the sea where she lives, mates and travels between coastal plains.


Open wounds along her midriff show where males have clung on during sex. The deep lacerations are the marks of inconsiderate lovers. She will have stored the sperm to release it on her own terms. The females drag themselves up these steeply shelved beaches over several egg-laying sessions. At the start of the season fat rolls out from their shells. By the end of the season they’re emaciated. In this fat-reduced state they still need to swim to the coastal waters of Brazil.


As we watch her I sense she’s lost in the moment. Part exhausted, perhaps a little elated at dropping her offspring into this carefully dug pit. With each convulsive tremor journeying across her body another egg is deposited. Egg after egg descends as we listen to wave after wave lapping. The Milky Way sparkles like a universal bioluminescence.


We witness this ritual that’s travelled before us through evolutionary time. There is a privilege in being beside her. We wait till she begins pushing sand across her eggs. Then we leave her be.


The same night I’m lucky enough to watch turtle hatchlings emerge. Out of the sands they swarm, the slap-patter of tiny flippers mimicking the noise of an insect colony. Once orientated they rush towards the sea, little clockwork bodies scampering across the sand. On Long Beach they’re relatively safe, but on more rocky stretches Sally-lightfoot crabs scurry to capture them and once caught they have their living bodies picked apart. Land crabs will do the same, tearing at the young turtles as their flippers try to drag some friction from the air.


Despite the macabre nature of such scenes the place is fascinating; we stand beside the world’s largest green turtles, on an isolated Atlantic island where the world’s second largest nesting of these animals takes place. In the warm night air we feel every moment with these mothers, laying eggs from which one in ten thousand may survive and return here in thirty years’ time. We are lost in the idea of that journey, from Ascension to Brazil and back to Ascension. It is easy to root for them with those odds, and as we do we become lost in our own journeys.


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