Life’s hectic undertow can shift in the blink of an eye, with no warning or care. For this alumnus, a rare encounter with a leatherback sea turtle reminded him that when you’re thrown off course, sometimes all you can do is wait for help.
By Luke Rein ’15
2015 was an exciting year. After I graduated from the College, won a national championship in rowing, and then bicycled from Rhode Island to California as a fundraiser for the climate action group 350.org, a lot of people asked me what I had planned for 2016. Surely, I’d had enough adventure for a while – wasn’t it time to do something normal for a change?
For someone who grew up beside the ocean, spent four years studying marine biology and had a penchant for outdoor living, the obvious next step was to move to a deserted island and spend the summer working as a wildlife biologist for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
A deserted island: Most people’s conception of the term involves palm trees, tropical latitudes, coral reefs and being hundreds of miles from civilization.
Monomoy Island, the location of my scientific exploits, is a barrier island off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s less than 80 miles from Boston, has an average summer temperature of less than 75 degrees and frequently is shrouded in fog for a few hours a day. Not a single parrot or boa constrictor can be found there. But without any year-round human inhabitants, only one permanent structure and daunting natural obstacles preventing most humans from reaching the island (it’s likely the least-visited part of Cape Cod), it’s the closest thing to a deserted island that you’ll find in Massachusetts.
The prospect of spending the entire summer on the island, working closely with scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to observe and document the birds nesting there, was enticing. This was certainly going to be my greatest adventure yet.
This desolation is what brought us biologists to Monomoy in the first place. With minimal human interruption, the island offers a perfect haven for a huge number of animals. Seals and great white sharks are probably some of the island’s best-known inhabitants. And clams, striped bass and bluefish are some of its most delicious. But the most ubiquitous animals, and the real reason we spent our summer on Monomoy, were the birds.
Tens of thousands of birds representing hundreds of species pass through the eight-mile spit of an island each summer. Some just use the island as a rest stop in their multi-day flights up and down the coast. Others, like the terns and plovers, make their summer homes there, taking time to raise a family before departing for the winter.
The prospect of spending the entire summer on the island, working closely with scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to observe and document the birds nesting there, was enticing. This was certainly going to be my greatest adventure yet. Indeed, it lived up to – and even exceeded – my highest expectations. Whether we were under attack from overprotective seabirds, stalking squid and dogfish across the mudflats by the light of our headlamps, watching whales feeding just yards away from us in the surf or keeping our eyes peeled for the telltale fin of a great white hunting for seals, life on Monomoy was a nonstop thrill, a relaxing retreat, a months-long logistical challenge and a full-time job.
As if the entire summer was scripted by some omnipotent author, the last day of my employment at Monomoy served as a perfect finale to the incredible experiences of the summer. That day, August 19, 2016, was marked by the arrival and departure of one of the ocean’s most awesome animals. It was the day we rescued a leatherback sea turtle. Few people will ever have the chance to see a leatherback; fewer still will encounter one on the beach. And, of that number, only a minuscule percentage will be fortunate enough to help orchestrate the rescue of such a magnificent and mysterious creature.
The rescue almost didn’t happen at all. When we found the stranded turtle after a quahogger’s tip, our first reaction was to call the professionals – the teams from the New England Aquarium and International Fund for Animal Welfare – to come to the aid of our reptile in distress. Monomoy’s relative inaccessibility, though, meant it could take all day for help to arrive, and that might be too long for the turtle to be slowly roasting under the August sun stuck on the baking sheet of a beach. It was obvious that if the turtle was going to make it back to its ocean home, we would have to be the ones to get it there.
Leatherback sea turtles virtually never come ashore. The females land every two to three years to lay their eggs; males, once they’ve hatched, will spend their whole lives, up to 100 years, plying the oceans.
Stranded high above the tide line, the turtle had left a trail of flipper marks that clearly defined its struggle after it washed ashore in the shallow tidal flats. Calm and warm, Nantucket Sound extends to the west of Monomoy Island. The shoreline has many sandbars and shallows, great places, as it happens, for a turtle to get stranded. From its tracks, it looked like the turtle had tried to make its way over the beach toward the sound of the waves crashing on the distant Atlantic Ocean side of the island. Ultimately, it only made it a few yards toward its destination before succumbing to the obstacles it faced.
Unsure of what to do, we started our rescue by cooling the turtle with water dipped from the ocean. Then we fashioned a makeshift sling out of a tent’s ground cloth snatched from our camp. Manuevering the turtle, some five feet in length and weighing in the neighborhood of 400 pounds, into the sling was a painstaking operation of digging, sliding and wriggling. Initially wary of its huge flippers, we soon discovered the ordeal had so exhausted the turtle that it was almost powerless to move, let alone harm us.
Deciding against releasing it back into Nantucket Sound, where it was likely to be stranded again, we opted, instead, to introduce it directly to the deeper and cooler Atlantic Ocean. The hurdle preventing us from attainting this goal, however, was the more than 100 yards of hot, sandy beach that lay between us and the Atlantic. Half carrying, half sliding the sling over the beach, we maneuvered the exhausted turtle toward the ocean.
For the most part, the turtle put up no real struggle. Perhaps its massive size, coupled with the discomforts of being stranded out of its environment for so long, had left it drained with nothing to do but wait for good luck to come its way. As the rescue party crested the berm and finally began heading downhill toward the surf, our large reptilian friend showed the first signs of renewed life and intent since we found it. As if suddenly realizing how close it was to the cool ocean waters, the turtle began its own clumsy sprint towards freedom, flapping its massive flippers and wriggling its body against the constraints of the giant sling. Gathering momentum as we moved down the intertidal zone, the whole party – rescuers, turtle and sling – raced together into the surf. As the sling drifted to the bottom and the turtle floated, recovering, at the surface, I took a moment to reflect.
Leatherback sea turtles virtually never come ashore. The females land every two to three years to lay their eggs; males, once they’ve hatched, will spend their whole lives, up to 100 years, plying the oceans. This turtle was a small one by leatherback standards, and, if all goes well, it will still be traversing the oceans for 75 more years.
Hopefully, it will never have to encounter another human. But if it does, I wonder if it will remember the day it met us. Sometimes, the unpredictable can happen to a turtle: They’re searching for food, get caught in a current and end up stranded and helpless. It’s then that they must rely on an outsider to save them.
The truth is turtles and people are a lot alike. No matter how independent and capable the human or reptile, sometimes unforeseen challenges land you in a situation you’re not prepared for. When they do, all you can do is look – or sometimes simply wait – for help in order to get yourself back on track. And your saving grace might just come from an unexpected source.
– Luke Rein graduated in 2015 with a degree in marine biology. He currently resides in Philadelphia, where he is living a life of passion and service. You can read more about his adventures – including rowing, biology, travel and entrepreneurship – at lukerein.com.
Illustration by Kate Waddell ’15.