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Sea turtles and sanity

BY MATT MILLER
White sands and turquoise waters shimmer before me, accompanied by a soundtrack of tropical birds.
Why am I not in a better mood?
Nine months ago, I started a new writing position with my employer. Most days, it’s a pretty sweet gig. I travel and write about cool conservation stories around the world, from fish restoration to bison research.
Of course, travel loses much of its romance when you do it often, particularly the part of travel that includes airports, taxis, noisy hotels and road food.
And no job, no matter how cool it may seem, is all adventure and no pain. There are always those things you’d rather not be doing.
Which brings me to the Yucatan Peninsula, where I currently find myself: surrounded by tropical splendor but stuck in a poorly lit room. I’m here to lead two scientific paper writing workshops. On my list of communications skills, scientific editing would be listed near the bottom. I love science, am intrigued by the process, respect and even idolize those who are good at it — but I am no scientist.
And so I wade through paper after paper. Forty pages on the spatial analysis of habitat connectivity and I begin to fear for both my blood pressure and my sanity. The sun goes down, and before I know it, I face the sullen reality that it’s 11 p.m., I have eight more such papers to read before morning and that I’ll be doing the same thing tomorrow night. And the night after.
My week stretches before me providing little but more editing, more papers, more jargon. By 1 a.m., I’m fried. I try to sleep. My brain turns on me, amplifying every thought into self-doubt and paranoia. I fear I am not suited to the task — I can barely understand the paper on nutrients and nutrophiles, let alone provide substantive feedback. My eyes bug out when I read titles like “Use of gap analysis to identify spatially explicit opportunities for a comprehensive marine and estuarine conservation strategy” — knowing those 17 words are only a preview of the 28 pages they precede.
I wonder how I’ll get through the week without being exposed as a fraud of a science editor. I wonder how I’ll plow through yet another round of these papers.
The next afternoon, I’m kicking white sand with sour thoughts when it hits me: I’m at serious risk of committing that unpardonable sin of not experiencing, not looking, of ignoring where I am in the world.
I’ve witnessed this frequently in the realm of global conservation: Dedicated people jetting far and wide to develop methods or policy to save coral reefs or endangered species or the world, while not taking a moment to actually soak in their surroundings. These are people who can rip through laundry lists of countries where they’ve held meetings to discuss maps or legislation or partnerships, but who see little beyond conference rooms. They might be physically in Polynesia but in reality they might as well be in Pittsburgh.
It’s so easy to see these traits in others, no?
You try to stay vigilant, but when you travel every few weeks, you start to lose focus a bit. You spend days in this or that spectacular place but you’re just going through the motions. You promise never to become that person who stares at Power- Point presentations while a moose walks unnoticed outside. Then you realize that you are on the Yucatan Peninsula and you can’t even see — really see — the aqua-blue water.
Ah yes, the water. Shouldn’t I get into it? How could I come this far and not at least see what’s out there?
Immediately, my to-do list pops into my head. I have a lot going on, or so it would appear. My boss might not approve if he sees me swimming around the bay. I have papers to read. I have conservation work to promote. I have deadlines looming. I need to get back to the conference room, pronto.
To hell with that.
I swing back toward my room and grab my snorkel out of my backpack. I lack fins but I don’t want to take the time to rent them from the dive shop. My sandals will have to do. Two minutes later, I’m calf deep in lukewarm water. I wade farther, pull my mask snug over my face and kick off away from shore.
My breathing falls into an easy rhythm as I paddle around. The reef here isn’t much, but there are beds of sea grass that provide cover for the occasional colorful fish, easy to see in the clear water.
And then: a dark shape, slowly moving ahead. I swim toward it, already recognizing its shelled form. A sea turtle. A loggerhead, to be exact, with brilliantly delineated lines crisscrossing its carapace.
The turtle is directly below me, grazing on sea grass much like a deer feeding in a field. It extends its neck as it clamps onto a bite of grass. Chomp, chomp, chomp.
I watch as its big eyes swivel around, perhaps assessing me for potential danger, deeming me harmless. A small yellow fish darts forward, snatching up tiny worms kicked up by the turtle’s grazing.
After a minute — maybe longer; I cannot say — the turtle effortlessly lifts off the bottom. It glides by, its front leg practically brushing my face. It resembles nothing so much as an underwater bird in flight. I try to follow, but the turtle’s a better swimmer. And then it is swallowed in blue water, gone. Like a ghost.
The late, great Edward Abbey once wrote: “It is not enough to fight for the land, it’s even more important to enjoy it.”
But, sometimes: easier said than done, even for those of us who have dedicated our lives to conservation and outdoor traditions.
I’m well aware of the challenges that lie ahead for wild things, wild places and wild pursuits. I read the books and articles. I know the tireless crusaders. I know what’s at stake, and I know the many theories on how to chart our future.
I don’t feel any closer to having answers. But I do know this: If we don’t actually spend time out amongst those wild things and wild places, we aren’t going to accomplish very much.
Certain conservationists can convince themselves that what we really need is more time with policy makers, more analysis, more partnerships. I think they’re wrong.
We still have a world where we can call a turkey, be scared witless by a grizzly, match the hatch, swim with a sea turtle.
We lose that, and we’ll lose. No matter how many meetings we hold, no matter how many articles we publish, no matter how many miles we travel.
And so I kick into that warm, blue, glorious water, not a care in the world other than where I’ll swim. I see another dark form ahead of me — turtle No. 2. The papers will still be there tonight. I probably won’t be able to understand or edit them any better. But for now, the turtles are enough. More than enough. ◊
Matt Miller is senior science writer for The Nature Conservancy. He is also a freelance writer specializing in hunting, conservation and agriculture. His work has appeared in Sports Afield, Living Bird, National Geographic Online and many other print and digital publications. Reach him at m_miller@tnc.org.

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