“Why are the dogs barking!” She said from somewhere deep in tropical dreamland. It was well past midnight or maybe the witching hour. Who knew and who cared. Three dogs perched on the edge of the bed barking at the window facing the beach was just a rude awakening. “They’re barking at some other dogs on the beach.” I answer grumpily. I rustle out from under the dampened humid sheet and let our dogs out into the black sticky heat. They run to the edge of the yard responding to barks drowned by the sound of crashing waves. It’s definitely dogs I think to myself. Nothing to worry about I assure my partner.
We live in a small surfing town called Troncones on the edge of the Great Pacific. A little farming pueblo settled by Gringo real estate developers about forty years ago. There were no beach side villas or peeking palm covered palapas back then, but now the long strip of sandy virgin beach is almost completely lined with vacation homes and bungalows. The town has one road, or street, coming from the highway forming a T at its end which runs along the length of the beach. It is now home to a few little businesses catering to the tourist and expat community of about six hundred people, depending on the season. There’s couple of food markets, a bar, a few restaurants and little hotels and the hardware store. The most successful enterprise supplying building tools and materials for all those homes in constant need of repair from the corroding ocean. It is also home to a thriving wildlife community. Iguanas, snakes, birds, skunks, insects, bats, crabs and even a crocodile lurking in the muddy waters of the rio. And then there are the sea turtles who return to this beach burying their ping-pong ball sized eggs by the hundreds. They have been coming to this beach well before any Gringos settled here. Ironically, this beach is their nursing grounds and it is more or less a nursing home for some of the aging retirees, with the exception of the young surfers, some being not so young.
The turtles are not threatened by these new settlers. Americans, like many others, have been seduced by the media about the plight of the sea turtle. They are a publicized Disneyesque attraction of their new found paradise. But they have brought a murderous threat to the tropics. Dogs! Man’s best friend, is not the turtles friendly neighbor. And there are the rib baring Mexican beach dogs that roam free, sometimes in small packs. These furry tongue dangelin’, tail waggin’ canines are murderers and commit countless acts of infanticide. Lurking in the moonless sky sniffing for washed up cadavers, they’ll dig up and raid turtle nests on a daily basis to gorge themselves on the gooey protein rich eggs. Or gobble flopping tiny turtles youngsters struggling to the relative safety of the heavy crashing waves. We know what happens to the little fellows in broad daylight. Birds swarm and snatch bite sized turtle nuggets with a chaser of ocean water. But now, in the safety of the dark skies and shadowless sand, Buddys, Scoobys and Rexs terrorize the neighborhood and eat turtle children.
The locals are well aware of this. Mexican law protects turtles, as does several young volunteers sponsored by a restaurant owner and local Gringos. They regularly patrol the beach several times a night on an ATV, probably sponsored by a few Gringo do-gooders. There is of course a threat of poachers to add to the line up of killers. Turtle eggs are a prized delicacy in the unspoken menus of restaurants. There is a good chance Roberto had enjoyed a few lime dowsed and hot sauce egg gobs in his past. That does not make him a bad guy, he now keeps a careful watch over egg gestation and hatchings behind his restaurant.
I learn about this the morning after our late night surprise. Looking out to the ocean, I sipped on my coffee from under the long Spanish tiled porch with my partner. She’d had fixed up an abandoned villa and was in a way part of the Gringo’s, although she was European. It had been a year since she’d moved in and saw many turtle sightings and countless eggs. I’d been visiting for a few weeks, and with coffee on the table a cigarette in between my fingers, I looked out and saw two or three teens chasing away dogs, one of them trying to capture them on his digital camera. I went to get my digi-toy and went out on the beach. “I think there is a turtle!” I shouted happily to my coffee mate.
Living directly on the beach has its advantages, and this was one occasion I would not pass by. I skipped out on the sand, slipped off my soft rubbery sandals and walked on the wet high tide sand towards the small group of kids. I could see the sleek silhouette of a large shapely turtle and one of the boys digging with a shovel. “Photo jackpot!” I thought. But within a few meters of my capture-the-happy moment escapade, I saw something altogether different, tragic! The turtle had been partially devoured. A hideous sight of chewed sinewy flesh carved out of the turtles shell. It was obviously dogs, as one of the teens was pointing out canine teeth marks. A quarter of the turtle had been ripped apart and consumed. They had bitten the lady behind the neck and worked their way down its side and into the roundness of its shell. The poor thing had been eaten alive. It was very near the ocean’s edge, she’d nearly escaped, but her course was interrupted and stopped dead in its tracks. It was a tragic sight.
One of the teens explained to me his estimation of the morose event, describing it with small details like Dexter Morgan. He showed me a photo of two black dogs at the house next door. “Do you know these dogs?” I had said a few words to him in my elementary Spanish, but he quickly switched to a well toned English. I did see the dogs before, but was not aware to whom they belonged. They both were wearing red collars, so they most likely were not Mexican beach dogs, but well cared domestic pets. I took a few pictures of the carnage like a crime scene sensationalist journalist. I was expecting a happy photo-op to add to my growing catalog of wildlife images, and what I captured was a bloody crime scene to often pictured front page in Mexican tabloids.
The boys were digging a grave. I thought they were digging up eggs. Two of them lifted the body and lowered it into a square sandy pit. My partner, gently strolled down the beach, coffee cup in one hand, cigarette in the other. She’d also expected a sweet wildlife scene. The boy who spoke English asked her about a white dog with black spots. We have three dogs, which sometimes wake us up a night. One of them is white with black spots. An English Bull Terrier. A fierce breed with a killer instinct that protects my partner when I’m away. We know he kills. It’s in his genes. Insects, crabs and lizards are is backyard prey. Unfortunately he’s lunged at horses and gotten into some territorial battles with marauding dogs pissing too close to his turf. So we take extra care not to let him out on the beach unattended. It’s a bit of a shame, as he loves the ocean chomping and leaping at waves like a natural born surf dog. She assures the young man our dog is always in the yard, but there is another similar Bull Terrier who roams free on the beach. He’s generally a friendly non-threatening dog which belong to the yoga retreat just down the beach. She will not let our dog take the heat. They have taken photos of the the dog tracks and the tell her they can smell turtle on their breath. I have faith they will find the culprits. I just hope they can convince the owners to restrain their dogs in the evening and at least acknowledge their faithful pets could be turtle killers.
The teens find the eggs by following the turtles tracks, they have poked a few holes in the soft sand with sticks like rescue workers looking for buried survivors. They quickly dig up a few dozen eggs. They are perfectly round little white ping-pong balls! The third teen is fashioning a mark for the grave on the beach with a stick and a green crown of leafy beach vine. There is a certain beauty to this tragedy. Some comfort to this sadness. The boys seem devoted to there cause. This is their country, their heritage…their home and the turtle’s beach.
We tell him about our dogs howling at the night, that we can sometimes hear dogs an the beach and wondered why they barked. And now had a better idea of what could not be seen but heard in the darkness, and asked if we could call someone. My partner wrote the number in the sand, so I could photograph it. The boy walked back with me to the house. I offered him a grocery bag for the eggs, as they had not brought one with them. It was also an opportunity for me to show him our dogs, and their containment. The Bull Terrier and our Aztec Xolosquintle hairless dog greeted him with little suspicion and mostly friendly sniffs and hops. “I can see your dogs are definitely not the dogs who did this.” He assures me. I tell him we keep a close watch on them, mainly the Bull Terrier, he smiles and gives the dog a pat on the head. We give him a black plastic shopping bag and express our gratitude and willingness to help if we hear barking in the night. Tonight after watching a couple of lame movies on TV, the dogs start barking. We’re both sleeping comfortably under the ceiling fan, and here we are again rudely awaken. I want to bitch slap them all in my half awake aggravation, but then the image of the flesh shredded sleek grey green turtle, as well as the memory of a baby turtle making its way to the ocean come to mind.
I get my ass up, grab a flashlight, and remember to tie a pair of dirty shorts around my naked waist. I head out into he darkness in the Bull Terrier’s footsteps, light cool rain tingling my chest in the hot humid air. The dog is at the backyard gate waiting like Greyhound ready to chase down a mechanical rabbit, and I sneak through the gate doors holding back the far too enthusiastic ball of canine muscle. He’s built tough, our English Bull Terrier, stocky and muscular like an mean English white boxer with small black beady eyes anchored deep down in his solid brow. He’s a good dog. I manage to hold him back and out of the gate as I look back at our barking guard waiting patiently and faithfully. For such a tough guy, our Bull Terrier is very sweet and obedient.
The beach is dark, very dark. Not a star in the sky, no moon, it’s raining lightly and I can only see a small round flashlight circle before me, and the sound of a deafening crashing surf to my right. The ground is moving everywhere I shine the light. Shelled Hermits and crabs scurry before my oncoming steps, I’m glad I kept my flip flops on. Generally I always walk on the beach barefooted. I lift the light to open a glimpse of the black distance, and I’m met with two eerie bright yellow green dots. Two eyes staring me down. I know it’s just a dog, but I still get a chill down my spine, slipping beneath my dirty shorts to the tips of my toes hoping no crab will pinch. Was he barking? The white flaslight circle reveals a shape it he near distance…nothing, just a log. Then another log. But all of a sudden the log is moving, propelled by four flat fins, the turtle is approaching me! And the dog is nearby! I chase him away. He’s just a Mexican beach dog, he knows to stay away from humans. Mexicans tend to treat dogs like animals and not pets. These dogs respect you, especially if you grab a rock. That’s the general rule with Mexican street dogs, grab something a chase them away if they threaten you or simply piss on your tires. Gringo dogs aren’t as afraid of humans, sometimes they’re even train to attack! Luckily it was just one yellow orange dog I’d seen roaming the beach and stealing into people’s houses and hotel garbage cans.
The dog ran off, and I raced to the turtle almost tripping over it in the blackness. It was scuttling along carrying it’s heavy mass parallel to the beach. It was maybe going to hatch it’s eggs. I did not bring my camera, out of superstition. I figured if I took the camera, I would not need it. So I hustled back to get my event recording device, convinced the turtle was going to give me a show. When I got back to the beach within minutes, and the turtle was gone! It had not gone to lay eggs in the dry sand, its track took a sharp left towards the screaming surf. It was on the oceans edge. Waiting for the next surge to lighten its heaviness to flow out weightless in the warm black waters. I took a few more steps with its scaled wings, as I was just able to get a blurry picture under the glow of the flashlight, then a three foot wall of water crashed at my knees almost knocking me down, as I caught the last glimpse of the gentle beast lifted and carried out to sea. It was do fast, so silent so brave to dive in that dark tumultuous thrash. I followed the tracks back up the beach and onto the dry sand. There were two holes. One fairly wide and partially covered up, the other small and deep. Perhaps the dog dug that hole looking for a midnight snack. I did not see many dog tracks, so that was a good sign. I did not want to dig up the eggs, not my place, I thought. Plus, I did not have a bag, or know-how to dig for turtle eggs. I found a stick in the rustling bushes, and planted it firmly where I believe the nest was buried as an indicator. I will call the number drawn in the sand, let the kids do what needs to be done. When I called, the number rang busy, maybe it was a busy night for the turtles. Hopefully tomorrow the eggs will still be safe, and the boys will find them on their morning patrol and more turtles my grow up to come back years later. I have some small satisfaction that I chased a potential killer away, and watched a beautiful lady turtle swim to sea. I also wish I could have done something for another lady the night before. Since this, I don’t bitch and whine when my our dogs wake me. I accept their sense of danger and regularly venture into the darkness for a quick patrol.
The world we humans dominate is not so much under our rule. The rule of nature is still in total control. This was a reminder that life is sometimes wonderful and often cruel. That all of us creatures struggle to survive. We humans have the benefit of industrialization, modernity, tools etc. We are insured by great corporate powers to live long and healthy and protected from risk. But are we really? The world is still a dangerous place, and no insurance policy will protect us from its reality. Turtles have been coming to this beach long before us, and probably will continue to do so when we’re gone. Survival for the sea turtle is about living in harmony with nature and the understanding that many of their babies wont live. Their insurance policy is laying as many eggs as possible as well as a little bit of help from Roberto and all his great young volunteers. They deserve a salary above any insurance representative!