“I would not creep along the coast but steer
Out in mid-sea, by guidance of the stars”
– George Eliot
My father was sixty-five when he passed away. He was tired, vulnerable and defeated from battling an unfair and protracted illness. He had desperately tried to navigate his way through to a better destination. Ultimately, it was not the dignified death one would hope for after a life of adventure, and he fought against the shutdown of his body until his very last breath. His passing left a void where once there had been my hero.
Our family was devastated by our loss, and embarked upon our own journey of grief. I remembered a day, more than twenty years earlier, when we had been in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My dad had asked me how deep I thought the ocean was. I don’t recall my answer, but it was probably something like “five hundred meters”.
“No,” he had said. “The sea here is almost six kilometers deep!”
This had seemed like a very long way down. I had looked across the gentle swell to the horizon and wondered whether it was closer than the sea bed. I had suddenly felt insignificant and vulnerable in the immense vastness of the sea. It seemed so easy to get lost. If the ship went down, how would I ever find my way home? That’s how I felt when my father died, and I suspect that was how he had felt in the final stages of his illness.
A few months after his passing, my family chartered a yacht and we sailed out of Durban harbour, just like he had done so many times before. We dropped anchor offshore to scatter his ashes and float some beautiful Stargazer lilies to commemorate his life. We sipped champagne and reminisced about our “old man of the sea”. It was a beautiful clear day off the east coast, and the sea air was salty and fresh, just as Dad would have liked it. After a few hours the skipper weighed anchor to head back to port. Just then a beautiful old Loggerhead turtle surfaced off starboard and looked quizzically at us. In less than thirty seconds he had flapped his flippers and returned to deeper waters. He was probably just popping up for air after a late lunch of delicious starfish and molluscs from the nearby reef, yet in my mind that turtle brought a message of comfort and inspiration from beyond the grave. To this day, sea turtles hold a deep significance for me. Like my father, they are the “old men” (and women) of the sea. What I didn’t realise at the time was that, also like my dad, they are master navigators.
As air breathers, turtles need to lay their eggs on land, and this defines their entire life cycle. Once hatched, baby turtles make their perilous way across the beach to the shoreline under cover of night, and swim out to sea as far as possible. They swim for up to twenty hours to be picked up by an offshore current and carried out to deeper waters. These deep oceans are effectively “blue deserts”, and both food and predators are scarce, unlike the shallower waters closer to shore. Little is known about “the lost years” of immature turtles, but we know that they migrate long distances in search of feeding grounds, often relying on seaweed beds and ocean currents for assistance. They stay in the deep sea for several years, only reappearing when they reach adulthood up to twenty years later to breed and lay their eggs. They navigate their way back to the only safe land they have ever encountered: the same beach where they hatched.
The Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town has conducted extensive research into turtle navigation. Their research confirms that their navigation systems are very advanced. Even juveniles that were raised in captivity can find their way back to the exact beach of their hatching from anywhere in the world. They do this by employing a fascinating combination of magnetic compass, celestial body tracking and taste. All sea turtle species contain tiny crystals of a magnetic mineral called magnetite deep inside their brains. These magnetite crystals behave like a compass and enable them to navigate great distances between their nesting and feeding grounds. The magnetite compass of Loggerhead turtles is so finely tuned that it can sense different rocks beneath the sands of its nest, making a “magnetic fingerprint” that allows them to remember their place of birth. In addition some species, such as Leatherbacks, have a thin spot on their skulls that allows sunlight to stimulate a gland in their brains and helps them determine the season and hence migration times based on the length of daylight. Their circadian rhythms are so precise that they can orientate themselves by the position of the sun in the sky, much like a “sun compass”. Between seeking food sources and returning to their place of birth, sea turtles can cover up to 10 000 kilometers per year! Because baby turtles never set eyes on their parents, they embark on one of the most epic solo journeys on the planet.
Imagine a juvenile turtle all alone in a massive blue vastness, unable to retract its head or flippers to protect itself from predators. Furthermore, it’s proximity to the surface in order to breathe every five minutes or so, renders it clearly visible to everything below. Instead of hiding from predators, they must outsmart them. What turtles lack in speed and design, they certainly make up for in courage and wisdom.
That tiny vulnerable turtle all alone in the deepest sea reminds me of that small girl in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Admittedly, I wasn’t alone, I was on a sizable vessel with a master mariner, my own “old man of the sea” and his crew. I did not have to evade predators as I searched for food in a blue desert, and I was taken home safely in a ship. But imagine if the ship had gone down, and I had been alone at sea. I very much doubt that I would have navigated very well, even in a lifeboat.
Now that I’m older, I think life is not dissimilar from a big scary ocean. Survival is part instinct and part navigation. At times we can set sail into deeper waters and cross vast and perilous distances. However, there are seasons where it is wiser to navigate to shallower waters and drop anchor. We need those times to repair our sails and reinforce our hull.
These are reflections that will stay with me forever as I navigate the stormy seas of life. Seafarers have been doing it for centuries, sea turtles have been doing it, alone, since time immemorial.