Sea turtles are called sea turtles for a very good reason: they don’t like to be on land. Their shells weigh them down when they’re out of the water, and they struggle to move across the sand. The Honu love to swoop and glide and soar, but on land they can only shuffle inch by awkward inch. Hannah knew other turtles who beached themselves for a good dose of sun when the cold slowed them down, but she had only been ashore once before in her life, when a tiger shark had chased her into a dead end cove. She had glided onto the sand just as its jaws snapped shut behind her. Now she would need to leave the water again.
As the sun set, Hannah made her way to the edge of the known world, where shadows gathered around her. These were other female Honu, all waiting like Hannah for the safety of darkness. When the blue waters had finally faded to black, they let themselves be carried by the breaking waves onto the shore, then began a difficult climb, away from the surf’s edge and toward the light, loose sand a hundred feet further up the beach.
Again and again, Hannah thrust her front flippers as far in front of her as she could, then pressed down with all her strength and dragged her heavy body forward. She seemed to make no progress at all, but she knew she could not quit. She had traveled too far to give up now. She thought of all the new turtle lives she held in her belly, each one closed away in its own private shell, and she pulled herself another five inches up the beach.
At last, Hannah made it to the soft, dry sand that lay beyond the reach of the highest tide. Here her work became harder. There was no rest for the tired flippers that had taken her across the ocean and out of the water she loved: she needed to dig a nest. The sand flew all around her, as a dozen Honu hollowed out big shallow bowls as wide as their own bodies. They used their back flippers to carve narrow burrows into the same quiet dunes where their mothers had nested, and their mothers’ mothers, and their mothers’ mothers before them.
Hannah didn’t have to ask whether her nest was big enough or deep enough. She simply knew. She laid her bright, precious eggs—more than a hundred of them!—in the shelter she had made. Then she covered them carefully with sand. When she was satisfied that she had hidden them well, she looked up to see that all the other mothers were making their slow way back to the water.
Hannah hesitated. Were the Honu really leaving their eggs behind? Would that thin layer of sand be enough to protect them from harm? She wanted to stay. She wanted to cover her nest with her own stony shell and fend off every threat that might come. She wanted to be there on the moonlit night when her babies would hatch and emerge in a tumbling crowd from the sand. She wanted to guide them to the water, through the pounding waves, away from the crabs who might snatch them on land, past the tiger sharks who waited for them in the depths. But she knew she could not.
In that moment’s hesitation, Hannah remembered all the many joys of the Honu life. She had been very frightened when she was a hatchling herself, no more than a mouthful for any hungry bird or fish. She might have wished for some protection then; she might have wished for someone to look out for her like Sam had done when she returned to Mokupapapa. But Hannah had traveled hundreds of miles before she met up with Sam, and she had not been afraid. She would never have learned to be so brave if her own mother had nervously followed her on her first great journey across the open ocean. She would never have learned the pleasure of solitude or the value of quiet. She knew her life was sweeter for the dangers she had faced.
“Have a good flight,” Hannah told her sleeping eggs. Then she turned and shuffled back down the slope of the dune, into the welcoming water.
Hannah lingered with Sam at Mokupapapa for many weeks. Three times she returned to the beach. Three times she made a new nest and hid her eggs carefully under the sand. The moon was bright on the night that Hannah dreamed again. In this dream, everything was familiar: the pink coral and the long, swaying grass. She saw once again the strange, peaceful human who had first tickled her curiosity. When she awoke, she could feel her blood humming in her veins.
“It’s time for me to go back,” she told Sam.
“Would you like company?” he asked. He remained a most gentlemanly turtle.
“Thank you, Sam,” Hannah said. “I think I’m good.” She brushed his flipper in farewell and soared out into the boundless blue, on her way home.
Photo by Marc M. Ellis