Journey of a Green Sea Turtle: Cautionary Vignettes from Past, Present, and Future Hong Kong
2019, High School, Prose
It was a peaceful night on the sandy beach of Sai-Kung. Far from Governor Alexander Grantham’s metropolis of Hong Kong, there were no loud urban distractions, no neon lights, and no industrial odors of a city at work. There was only the vibrant white of the moon, the clock-like pounding of waves against the shore, and the hungry cries of nocturnal birds gliding in the night sky. The air was a cocktail of warm mist and freshly ground salt.
Nestled in hiding beneath the sands, an unhatched sea turtle opened her eyes and inspected her surroundings, newly discontented by the darkness in her incubation. For two months, in the relative safety of a buried nest, the little turtle’s body had grown and matured in preparation for the harrowing escape to come. That moment had arrived.
A rush of instinct filled the creature, and a chorus of cracking shells sounded around her, eggs breaking and opening, yielding to the primordial escape urges of their tiny occupants. The turtle bashed her head against the walls or her cocoon, until a beam of moonlight penetrated the shell and a burst of adrenaline carried her out into the new world.
The creature stood for the first time on the sand, wobbly and covered in the viscous fluid of her discarded home. Moonlight engulfed her, and the beach came into focus, every mound of sand and coconut tree and bend in the shoreline storing itself in deep memory. Then, surrounded by hundreds of her dazed siblings, the turtle’s march began.
Slowly the turtle and her kin made their way down the sandy shore, braving the mountains and valleys of each small mound and divot. The young reptile’s progress was halting, but the biological imperative to reach the foaming surf rang like an alarm in her mind, driving her forward. And her way seemed clear enough, until the hunters arrived.
The seabirds descended upon the defenseless hatchlings like death with wings, and the turtle toppled backward in a confusion of flapping feathers and flying sand. A harpoon-like beak thrust furiously at the panicked youngling, missing by millimeters. With all the power she had in her body, the tiny escape artist pedaled her four weary limbs towards the water, and the frenzied hunter moved on to a new target. The turtle watched as the great bird scooped an unlucky victim up from the dune and into the sky.
With a wild splash, the tide took her, backwards at first, then forward into the depths of the salty harbor. Instinctively she retracted into her shell and waited for the violence of the break to subside. When it did, she elongated her limbs and neck, and paddled intrepidly forward into the unknown.
The beast swam steadily, pacing herself with mature, confident strokes. She stood out from the finicky schools of salmon and bass that darted evasively at the slightest sign of danger. She possessed a calm, steady confidence in the ocean’s vast and cruel expanse, earned after years of hard-fought battles for survival. The turtle had learned many painful lessons.
A decade earlier, traveling through the northern reaches of the Pacific, she encountered a massive swarm of succulent jellyfish, a veritable dinner buffet floating in the murky water. The famished turtle had never seen such an immense bloom. She lowered her head in a slow approach, then lunged forward and gripped a large jellyfish between her teeth. She twisted and turned to take a juicy bite, but to her surprise, the jellyfish stayed resiliently intact. Agitated, she swallowed her prey whole.
The turtle recoiled. The plastic bag was choking her, preventing the passage of food and water. In a panic, she whipped back and forth, her vision blurring. She began to sink, weakly, in the swarm of plastic refuse, until finally, mercifully, she gagged and ejected the deadly material from her throat.
In the years following, she saw more and more of these menacing masses of lifeless jellyfish appear throughout the ocean. She had been lucky. Others of her kind who had preyed on these creatures were either gravely ill or dead. But now was not the time to fear the plastic bags or fishing nets, or any of these terrors. Now was a time for renewal and rebirth.
The travel-worn reptile could already feel the familiar, humid breeze when she went to the surface for an exchange of air. And then she saw it. The beach. The same beach she had desperately escaped as a hatchling. She had travelled thousands of miles to return to this spot.
The turtle approached the shore and crawled her way up the glistening dune. She could see the tropical coconut trees and the white-bellied sea eagles clearly. She shooed off an oblivious bird perching with the swat of a flipper. The bewildered gull flapped away, zigging and zagging across the shore, followed by other birds into the setting sun. The turtle watched as the flock disappeared into the horizon. The shore was her territory now. She sat down in her nest as the waves beat back and forth with a familiar, lunar rhythm. The circle of life was set to begin anew.
After many decades of migration and nesting, the turtle had become a veteran observer of her Pacific route. The coral reefs she passed had grown year after year, each filled with vibrant reds and deep blues, an extensive range of color and bold pattern unmatched anywhere else in the sea. She saw many generations of clownfish and triggerfish, trunkfish and soapfish, grouper and seabream, hunting and spawning, schooling and nesting, shielding and camouflaging themselves from the danger of a feeding tiger shark or white dolphin.
But something was beginning to change. Something was disrupting the deep rhythms of all creatures at sea. As the turtle paddled past the vast reef zone of Sai-Kung in the past decade, the reefs were somehow less vibrant, paler, and more fragile than years prior—anemic like a dying creature. And as the reefs were growing weaker, typhoons and hurricanes began to shake the seas with greater intensity. The entire ocean felt as though it were warming, faster than the marine world could handle. The turtle watched as thousands of schools of fish left Sai-Kung on a one-way trip to the north, in search for cooler, more habitable waters.
But some patterns held firm. Summer had arrived, and it was time again for the turtle to return to Sai-Kung to nest. No matter where she was in the world, no matter how far she had travelled, she always came back to Shen-Wan Beach to lay her eggs. But reaching the beach had become treacherous. Several years prior, a fast-moving predator circling the beach had mauled her, leaving her near death. Luckily, the speedboat’s propeller had not fully penetrated her tough shell.
Thankfully, this season the turtle’s approach had gone unimpeded. She reached the foamy shoreline on a bright, moonlit night and prepared for her seasonal climb. As the creature crawled methodically up the sand, she felt that the sand was warmer than usual, a change that filled her with apprehension and disquiet. But the gulls cawing maniacally overhead didn’t seem to mind, and she pressed forward.
Operating from precise memory, the turtle headed towards her nesting zone. But as she drew near, she sensed that something was profoundly wrong. The sand about her nesting area was relatively undisturbed; it did not bear the typical signs of the mass exodus of the hatch. She approached apprehensively, observing a strange odor. As she arrived to her nest, she understood. Before her lay hundreds of rotting, unhatched eggs, full of lifeless embryos, oozing fluid and stench where the first footprints of her young should have been.
The unprecedentedly high sand temperatures had made the nest too hot and too dry, sapping the eggs of vital moisture and nutrients. The mother turtle could make out parts of her embryonic hatchlings in the now rotten and molded eggs, their formed limbs, their hard shells, their inky eyes… The nursery had become a graveyard.
The mother took no time to mourn. She was old and resilient, not the sentimental type. Crawling several body lengths away from her doomed young, she prepared to dig a new nest.
The solitary green turtle could not remember the last time she had seen a youthful turtle of her kind roaming the tropical ocean. And, beyond the understanding of the wise creature, that change was having larger impacts. Fish that depended on the seagrass beds maintained by the turtles—including snappers, rays, and sharks—had died out or left for more hospitable waters. The Barrier Reefs she passed now looked like pallid ruins of a once vibrant civilization. Everything around her seemed sickly, bleached and burned by the increasingly acidic ocean. The acid was slowly eroding the turtle’s own shell. Tumors were beginning to grow on her body, causing the elderly creature excruciating pain.
Over the years, the turtle had become an expert navigator. By sensing both the angle and the intensity of the earth’s magnetic field, she had never gotten lost on her way back to Sai-Kung, even amidst the dramatic transformations of the recent years. It was as though she were tethered to the beach, that crucial spot she had escaped as a hatchling a century before. Each year, she made it safely to Sai-Kung, and each year she laid another batch of hope-filled eggs amidst piles of death, stagnant and rotting in the warming sands.
This year, as the turtle made her approach to Shen-Wan Beach, she could sense that there was something amiss. She was accustomed to smelling the decay of the unhatched nests of years prior, but she could not detect the scent. As she navigated inland, she paddled slowly and scanned her surroundings. Looking down at the sea floor, her instincts told her it was time to surface. When she broke the surface of the water, she was met with an alarming sight: the beach was gone. What remained was rocky, jagged coastline. Disoriented, she re-submerged and scanned the ocean floor. Then she understood. The beach itself and her entire nesting ground were completely submerged by the sea. The turtle’s mind fizzled with confusion. She swam back and forth dozens of times, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Her instincts pulled her down to confirm the reality, and then she resurfaced to ponder her next move.
After 100 years of life, her most fundamental task had been disrupted. What could she possibly do now? She couldn’t lay her eggs on the seafloor, and she couldn’t ascend to nest in the sharp rocks that ringed the island.
She had never faced this sort of uncertainty. She was used to riding her instincts to their fortuitous conclusions; she trusted her routine. Now, her instincts were doing battle inside her. She swam circles, came up for air, and took in her surroundings. In front of her, the island rose menacingly from the sea. Behind her, the ocean stretched out into infinite. The choice was clear.
The sea turtle turned her back to Sai-Kung and swam away into the vast, open ocean.
Although I am a native of Beijing, I spent several years as a young boy in Hong Kong. When most people think of Hong Kong, “the Pearl of China,” they usually think of a sleepless metropolitan city with tall skyscrapers rising from the coastline. What many people tend not to know is that more than half of Hong Kong is covered in undeveloped regions of diverse flora and fauna. Hong Kong boasts some of the lowest pollution rates in China. Living in tropical, biodiverse Hong Kong sparked my interest in environmental science. Unfortunately, just because Hong Kong is well-managed does not mean it is exempt from the effects of global warming. Hong Kong’s beloved green sea turtles are a species in the crosshairs. Therefore, I chose the perspective of a green sea turtle to trace the impact of climate change on the region. In the process of writing the piece, I learn about the biological needs of turtles and other sea life and how climate change will affect entire systems of life. Although this story is fictional, and in some instances may give the turtle human-like awareness, it is rooted in scientific reality, detailing damage already being done, and damage that will be done if we do not change course. I hope people reading my piece might feel a sense of urgency about our world, especially my generation, and act as soon as possible. People should begin to take measures on a personal level, by shrinking their carbon footprints through judicious use of energy resources. And on a collective level, I hope my story encourages people to pressure their governments to invest in and pursue carbon-neutral technologies of the future.