David Hoppe

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:: Waiting on the oil spill

A miracle on the beach

By David Hoppe

At the end of May my immediate family gathered in the little town of Palm Beach Shores, on the east coast of Florida, to celebrate my mother's 82 nd birthday. We were within walking distance of a long and beautiful beach and, from my parents' apartment, had a view of an inlet, an aquamarine waterway that glittered in the sun.

The Midwesterner in me is endlessly amazed by the ocean. It's a miracle of energy and life, a great, mysterious vastness. It expands your spirit, but, at the same time, puts you in your place. It's hard to imagine that we humans could wreck something so immense.

Even though we were on the other side of Florida - the side away from the Gulf, where oil was gushing up from the deep sea floor in incalculable amounts - you could feel a creeping dread. There were predictions that currents might carry the oil around the tip of Florida's peninsula and bring it up the coast, fouling the shore as far as New Jersey. The local press reported that an emergency action plan was in the works.

It so happens that every year at this time, the great sea turtles, Loggerheads and Leatherbacks, pull themselves out of the ocean and painstakingly scuttle on to Florida's beaches to lay their eggs. In the mornings, when we walked along the water's edge, we'd see postings of yellow caution tape and signs warning that here was a turtle nest and messing with it could net you a large fine and even jail time. Each morning it seemed like there were more of these nests than the day before.

One night my wife and son and I went to the beach in search of turtles. A silver moon reflected off the sand, making everything almost bright as day. There was a breeze that crossed our skin like satin. We encountered a few people but, for the most part, we had the place to ourselves.

It wasn't long, though, before we crossed paths with a young man on a dune buggy. He told us he was researching sea turtles and that if walked up the coast a quarter mile we would find a Leatherback turtle laying eggs.

We learned that Leatherbacks are the most endangered of the great turtles. The largest one on record was ten feet long and weighed a ton. They range from the coast of Wales (where that giant was found) to Florida, Mexico and South America, where they lay their eggs.

We followed the dune buggy's taillights, the feathery salt surf splashing our shins. Before long, in the shadows cast by a wall of high-rise condominiums, we arrived.

The Leatherback was over four feet long; the researcher estimated it was between 600 and 800 pounds. She'd come ashore an hour earlier and managed to drag herself about 60 feet, up to where the sand was soft and easy to burrow.

From a distance, her shell looked like a large, dark mound. It showed a white streak where she'd been scraped by the bottom of a boat; we were told one of her flippers had been chomped by a shark. Her head was the size of football.

The researcher invited us to sit and keep her company. For about the next hour, that's what we did.

It was very quiet, but the turtle was working hard. When she finished laying, she began to bury the eggs by violently pushing the sand with her flippers. It was like she was making a snow angel. You could hear the whap-whapping as her flippers slapped her sides. Then she she'd give a hard sigh and gather herself for another round.

We realized she was also incrementally trying to turn herself around so that she could begin pulling herself back to sea.

I have never seen such an act of will. The Leatherback's determination was titanic. The next morning she was gone. There was a neat square of yellow caution tape where her eggs were buried. If you looked closely, you could see a wash of sand marking her journey back to the depths. It made me want to say a prayer.

Last week people living along the Gulf reportedly cheered when they received news that President Obama got BP to commit to creating a $20 billion escrow account to help pay for damages accumulating as oil continues to gush. This money will be necessary to help those folks remake their lives on the shores of what could be a toxic sea for years to come.

But while $20 billion may seem like a lot of money, it's a puny substitute for what's being lost, an accountant's way of trying to express the dimensions of the wreckage our appetite for oil at greater depths has caused. By all accounts, untold numbers of sea turtles have already perished, the victims of a massive cocktail of oil, gas and toxic dispersants. And we have yet to learn what the so-called clean-up is doing to the health of humans.

The president promised the Gulf would be "normal" again someday. If that's true, normal is about to get very weird.