12 January 2021
A boy with sun-kissed skin gnaws at his grilled corncob on a stick. It’s smothered in what looks like creamy, melted cotija and Tajín, and watching him makes my mouth water. We haven’t eaten since before we boarded our plane, early this morning. It doesn’t matter to BK’s stomach, though, that it is empty; it revolts against the pitch and sway of the sea.
Deep in the bowels of the shuttle, encased in steel, we cannot see much of the world around us. One must stand to look at the horizon because the windows are so high and narrow. I do this and note that the horizon tilts quite dramatically as we toss about in the waves.
Sitting near me on the smooth, hard bench, BK suddenly reaches across aisle and snags a trash can by its lip. The can protests with a loud grumble along the floor as she pulls it in front of her and spits bile into it in dry heaves. Her back convulses. After a moment, she shoves the can away again – her face a shade of chartreuse – crosses her arms over the tops of her legs, and then rests her head on her forearms.
Corncob boy has fallen asleep lengthwise two benches over. Part of me wishes a portion of his ease could be shared with my sister. Another part of me is grateful that I am not susceptible to seasickness. Another small part of me, a part I am reluctant to admit exists, is a touch proud of myself for no good reason: I admire my own strength, as though in this case I had any choice in the matter…
Pat, BK’s husband, is equally seasick and likewise pulls the can in front of himself at intervals. I stand and witness their profound unease, swaying with the horizon, unable to help.
At the airport on mainland Honduras, we were told we’d need to take the sea shuttle because there was a “dead cow on the runway” in Utila, making it impossible to land a plane. This is the most absurd story I’ve ever heard, yet real life can often be stranger – or at least more fascinating – than fiction. So here we are. Two-thirds of our party will arrive at our destination exhausted and spent instead of invigorated and primed for adventure. The shuttle cannot arrive soon enough.
Once the shuttle docks, we disembark; BK and Pat are shaky and weak. My mom and Jackie help them with their luggage, and I bring up the rear. Overloaded with people and bags, the golf cart wheezes and whines its way up the dirt road to our rented beach house on stilts. Twilight has dissipated and darkness fallen by the time we arrive.
Large red and blue crabs with bodies the size of fists scuttle from under the tires and into their dens when illuminated in our feeble headlamps. If there had been just two or five of these crabs, I might have found them intriguing. Instead, there are hundreds of them, all but carpeting the sandy ground, spaced at two-foot intervals from one another. Their holes are everywhere. My body shudders with a thrill of terror and I scurry up the steps to the house – away from the ground and its infinite crabs.
In the dimness of my bedroom, the sea beyond our house is a presence heard but not seen. It roars and fades; its rhythm soothes. My window stands open, welcoming the noise and the wind’s caress.
A beetle lumbers over the polished wood floor near the corner of my doorway. I smash it with a shoe but am too grossed out to clean up the mess. Over the next hour, as I read in bed, a trail of ants appears and, to my relief, slowly carries the carcass away to some unknown location. Nature’s cleaners. I shrug.
The sun rises early in Utila – usually by about five-thirty in the morning. With that first light on our first morning comes a man, dressed in stained white overalls and a baseball cap, whose job it is to rake away and dispose of all the trash that accumulated on our private beach overnight. That such a chore is required both startles and dismays me. He rakes meticulously, leaving the sand pristine in his wake.
Where did all of the crab dens go?
Our agenda for this day is to ride out to a loggerhead turtle nesting site at Turtle Beach Sanctuary. There, we will visit and monitor the nests which are projected to hatch today or tomorrow. We might just get lucky!
The golf cart ride out to the sanctuary is uncomfortably sticky; all five of us are piled together, shoulders and thighs touching. We are heaving puddles of sweat. Mosquitoes assault us mercilessly whenever the cart slows to navigate through mud or debris. This had better be worthwhile. I count iguanas to get my mind off of my discomfort…one, two…six…
Turtle Beach Sanctuary is a depressing sight. The nests are marked with little flags, which is perfectly understandable, but the rest of the shore is littered with plastic waste. I look out at it in horror: turtles lay clutches in nests here amidst this filth. Bottle caps, toothbrushes, forks, bags, toothpicks, plates, combs – in my mind’s eye, I can envision corncob boy just tossing his plastic corncob stick into the sea, as his parents do, as his grandparents did before them. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.
“Ah! There’s movement, here!” Jackie yelps. She stands by one of the nests.
Along with the sanctuary volunteers, we make our way over to the ripe nest to watch in anxious anticipation. One volunteer jogs quickly back to her golf cart and returns with a roll of trash bags; she hands one out to each of us.
She instructs, “Ok, your job is to go collect as much trash as possible between this nest and the water. If the turtles cannot get past the trash and into the sea quickly, they will not survive. So, because we made this harder for them by throwing trash into the sea, we must now make it easier again by clearing their path.”
My heart shatters altogether at her words. How can humans be so thoughtless and self-absorbed? But we have little time for such thoughts as turtle babies begin to push through. At first, the tiny black bodies climb out of the sand by the ones and twos. Then, by the threes and fours. Finally, a stream of them floods out one after another nonstop. One volunteer counts them out loud while my mom dutifully writes numbers down on a clipboard.
We are hard pressed to stay ahead of the turtles’ emergence. It is impossible to keep track of them all – a pipe dream to think we could clear the trash for each baby’s journey to the sea. We work tirelessly for half an hour; our energy is fueled by some untapped store of hope, despair, and guilt. These turtles are adorable, flopping their fins and plopping along, each leaving a trail of double dots in the sand as they go. And their struggle is our fault. I’m ashamed.
The number of hands does make the work quicker, however, and before long the beach is clear and the stream of baby turtles wanes to a trickle. In all, 109 hatchlings emerge from the clutch in this nest. With our aid, they all make it to the water. We watch with bittersweet awe as they tumble into the waves propelled by the tenacity of their survival instincts. Then they swim away. A success story.
Half-gratified yet half-discouraged, we load back into the golf cart and head home. A touch bored again, I continue the iguana count I began on the drive out…twelve, thirteen…
As daylight fades and the sun’s rays fail to penetrate the tree canopy overhead, Jackie slows the cart and peers intently at the road in front of us.
“What is that?” she asks. “It goes all the way across the path.”
We all look where she is pointing. There is a long, straight line of vibrant green – and it’s moving. No, it’s marching. Curiosity propels us all from our seats. What in the world? Thousands upon thousands of leaf-cutter ants, carrying precision-cut leaves over their heads like sails, march in single-minded single-file, bisecting the dirt road. As they move, the leaves jitter, twist, and shimmer in the dying light of day. Glittering green.
As soon as I realize what I am seeing, while enthralled, I startle, shriek, and leap back onto my seat so as to no longer touch the ground. Too many TLC and Discovery Channel shows about exotic flesh-eating ants have left me a touch scarred. It’s better to watch from a distance. My eyes are riveted to their methodical progress.
Eventually, we tire of watching; it is not as though they are a three-ring circus, after all. The only trick they seem interested in is that of carrying leaves in a straight line. We decide carry on, but our eyes dart at each other anxiously: how will we continue on our path without crossing the line of these industrious insects? There is no alternative: Jackie presses the cart quickly forward rolling wheels over miniature lives, and no one looks back – no one but me. The line of ants, now broken in two places, explodes into chaos; leaf sails wag and shudder, many are dropped, as ants fall out of procession to make sense of the disruption. As they fade into the distance, my imagination takes over and I see discarded leaves litter the floor while members of the procession move backward and forward to recover their fallen comrades and haul broken bodies back to their community to – what? Bury them? No…consume them? Maybe…I shudder and let go as the daylight disappears and we bump our way back to the beach house for dinner.
Every day in Utila brings still more revelations. On our first day of diving, everyone pairs off except me; Brian was unable to obtain clearance from the USAF to travel to Honduras (terrorism, violence, drug lords, etc. – he is a commodity of the US Government), and so I have no preordained scuba buddy. I am given over to be buddies with Chris, a tall, lean, bronze instructor with floppy sun-bleached hair and rotten teeth. His carefree attitude almost makes him lovable in spite of his dental issues, but not quite. I cringe inwardly every time he talks to me but also relish his kind attention, which breeds within me an irrational quiet affinity.
Under the water’s surface, Chris is patient, conscientious, and considerate. We move slowly, as this is my refresher dive, and I am not to exceed 60 feet. He never leaves my side and uses clear hand signals to communicate. In this watery dreamland, I am susceptible to distraction: an eel here, an anemone there – oh – don’t miss the trumpetfish! Chris’s calm thumbs-up makes me flush. What am I doing right? But the flush of doing something right quickly fades as my mind flashes back to my dive training in a grey, murky quarry nestled in the rolling rural Maryland countryside. Images of hand signals appear behind my eyelids, and I rifle through them quickly: “OK,” “shark,” “lionfish,” “stop,” “low on air,” etc. What was the thumbs up signal, again?
OH! “Go up!” In a brief panic, I check my dive computer – I’ve dropped to 67 feet in depth; I need to put some air into my buoyancy control device and move back up above 60 feet. He isn’t telling me I am doing something well. He is telling me I need to ascend. I add air to my buoyancy device and rise to 60 feet, and Chris appears satisfied and signals “OK?” I signal back, “OK.”
Dutifully, Chris follows and supervises me, his wayward idiot scuba buddy, nearly the entire dive. We move slowly with our group along a 30-foot-deep shelf of coral reef, inspecting the wildlife as it presents itself. Swiftly out of the abyss beyond the shelf’s drop-off rises a medium-sized loggerhead turtle. Its fins flap languidly, but they propel its body efficiently as it veers around us to the left, tipping its shell like a banking fighter jet so that we can see its square-sketched underbelly. Its head lifts briefly, and once it passes our group, it dives back toward the coral shelf to hunt. I smile at myself for a moment around my regulator; someday the babies we guided to water will look like that. We move on.
Chris’s hand on my arm catches my attention: he gestures vaguely at the spear in his other hand and then points diagonally downward toward the reef. Finally, he beckons me and then slowly kicks down to the reef’s drop-off. Curious and obedient to a fault, I follow.
We approach the edge of the drop-off together and in the dim shadow between two large coral (one green and one pink), I finally see it: a lionfish. Chris is hunting lionfish.
Lionfish are an invasive species; they are native in Asia, not Central America. It is said that they were being kept in aquariums in Florida and may have escaped captivity in that region during a hurricane. Now, they hunt Atlantic reefs without any natural predators, threatening to drive numerous other species to extinction. They are capable of destroying ecosystems.
It is a part of Alton’s Dive Centre’s mission to spear and kill the lionfish they encounter on their sightseeing and instructional dives. Instructors are encouraged to keep a tally of their kills to compete for prizes at the end of each excursion. Chris has not yet seen one on this dive, and a small thrill runs up my spine with the prospect of watching him kill this wildly exotic-looking fish.
The lionfish, unused to being stalked as prey, is slow and confident. It does not even flinch in Chris’s proximity, and spearing the fish is no challenge. In awe, I watch as he pulls the dead fish from between the coral out to open water where he can inspect it and carefully show me: it is covered in flowing satiny soft-looking barbs that are deceptively dangerous – a fantastical aquatic porcupine. Its mottled brown-and-white stripes ensure that it appears within the reef as an indistinct and indiscernible shadow – deadly, and yet nothing apparently worthy of alarm. On its face appears a judgmental frown; it is beautiful and ugly all at once, and it makes me hate to be human just a bit more.
Chris draws a mesh sack from his belt to carry his catch back to the dive boat. If I could see his face beyond the mask and regulator, I am sure his black teeth would be flashing underneath a smirk. “No natural predators.” Ha.
On the ride home after this dive, I sit speculatively at a side rail of the boat staring off into the distance, half in reverie, half in simple relaxed contentment. My wetsuit is zipped open to the waist, and the sun warms my shoulders, chest, cheeks, and forehead; I close my eyes and turn my face into its rays. After a moment, the growing warmth reminds me that I should take care not to burn, so I open my eyes and twist the other direction on my seat, moving my bare skin out of the direct sunlight. As I do so, I notice a black and white bird with long W-shaped wings soaring at high altitude above a cliff. Its wings never flap. In fact, the wings look immobile, like a kite. The bird weaves a painfully slow loop, never abruptly changing direction. I have not seen a bird behave like this before: pelicans dive, seagulls skim – the closest I can think of is a vulture. But this is not a vulture. Its wings appear too long and lean, like they are built not to flap.
In a fit of confusion, I turn to Chris, who sits on a crate at the center of the boat: “What is that bird?”
“WHAT?” he yells over the wind and engine noise.
“What is that bird over there?” I point exaggeratedly at the sky above the cliff.
“It’s a friggin’ bird!” he responds without hesitation.
A touch miffed that he’d be so rude to me after so kindly escorting me on our dive, I huff: “Well I know it’s a friggin’ bird!”
“No, it’s a frigate bird,” he corrects me. AH! I laugh at the misunderstanding. Frigate bird. I file this away to look it up later when we’re back at the house with internet access.
Frigate birds, I learn later that evening after a quick search, are built to soar – and only to soar. Their bodies are not constructed to take off from beach or water. Their wings simply cannot withstand the strain. To compensate, they have developed a plethora of adaptations. First, they do not land at sea level if it can be avoided. When nesting, they tend to do so on cliffs, in trees, or atop towers, where they might launch themselves into the air for flight using gravity’s momentum and minimal effort. Because sea-level takeoff presents such a challenge and because they are bullies, they frequently steal food from other birds, like seagulls and pelicans, mid-flight. It is speculated that they may go days or more without touching the earth.
The frigate bird’s only known predator is the human.
After researching these majestic creatures, the dark sea’s song calls me to the widow’s walk. I wind my way up the bent, weather-beaten staircase to the roof and settle myself on the long bench, legs pulled up and crossed in front of me, facing the back support. My arms rest comfortably on this rail. With my face turned to the sea, the salty wind picks up my hair and roars in my ears, keeping all mosquitoes at bay. Ship lights glint and flutter across the dark expanse. Above them, the stars shine without a moon or any clouds to stifle their radiance.
And I think.
Crabs. Ants. Turtles. Iguanas. Lionfish. Frigate birds. I’ve learned so much about Utila’s wildlife on this trip. This should be a joyful education, and yet it gives me pause. So many of these creatures are impacted detrimentally by human action – and human inaction. It never previously dawned on me how much our behaviors are changing our world. We don’t often see it in our day-to-day lives; sometimes it takes a change of scenery.
But tonight, my heart is just a little bit broken for Utila’s ecosystem. Tonight, I yearn to do better.