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Why Sea Turtles Need People Like Honora Gabriel

Mason and I swam with sea turtles three years ago. It was (by far) the closest I’d ever been to the reptiles, so I was unprepared for both their grace and their friendliness. The turtles glided through the clear blue Caribbean with an elegance that hinted at their longevity. Their family tree branches back to prehistoric times. It was an amazing experience, the rare kind where I entered a foreign land yet felt completely welcome.

This memory resurfaced a few months ago when Honora Gabriel told me she was spending two weeks saving sea turtles in Costa Rica. The turtles need help because six out of seven species are endangered, and we are the primary reason for their withering numbers. Think trash, fishing nets, and pollution. Multiple sources claim only one in 1000 sea turtles live to maturity.

Like every member in a well-run household, sea turtles have chores. In essence, they are the gardeners of the oceans because they mow the sea grass. Untended sea grass is like a weed. It kills everything. Turtles also keep the jellyfish population under control because they eat them. Plus, their hatched eggs leave nutrients in the sand that help combat erosion. Because of the turtle’s shrinking numbers, these chores aren’t getting done, and that affects the whole marine ecosystem. The Sea Turtle Conservancy put it like this, “All parts of an ecosystem are important, if you lose one, the rest will eventually follow.”

Honora is in her late thirties, petite with a mane of black curls. She’s a pharmaceutical consultant who designs programs that help patients get access to life-saving medications. She also blasts through every glass ceiling she encounters. The Charlotte Business Journal named her one of the “Top 25 Women in Business” in 2015. The following year the Mecklenburg Times gave her a “Woman of the Year” award. And in 2019, she’ll take over as Board President of Susan G. Komen Charlotte Chapter.

I’ve known Honora for over a decade, and I’d be proud to call her a friend even if she didn’t care about animals, but she does. And she does something about it. In December, Honora volunteered with Costa Rica Volunteer Now on the Playa Camaronal Wildlife Refuge. She slept under a mosquito net, chopped trails through the jungle, and lived on rice and beans for two weeks. And she did it so that we all get an opportunity to swim with sea turtles.

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, then you know the Farnival likes to pay tribute to everyday badasses who help animals. People that prove anyone can make a difference. Recent additions to our list include Gus Sims and Barbara Jamison. Now it also includes Honora Gabriel. Two weeks ago, I caught up with Honora and asked her about her trip to Costa Rica.

So….why sea turtles? 

I’ve always felt a connection to the ocean. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then when I went to Ithaca College, I met [my husband] Jason and we would meet everyday at this sea turtle fountain. It’s the place where our relationship grew. It’s also the first place he told me he loved me, and Jason ended up getting that same turtle tattooed on his arm.

I can’t say why, but I feel like turtles are my spirit animals. So when I decided to leave corporate America, and I did leave corporate America, I wanted to mark it with something important to me. And I decided to save turtles.

Coolest thing you learned about sea turtles?

They return to the place they were born to lay their eggs. The turtles can be thousands of miles away, but they still come back to the place where they hatched. This boggles my mind. For instance, say they are in Australia and they are coming to Costa Rica, how do they know when they have to leave? It really boggles my mind that they know when to leave, and that they make it back to where they were hatched. And turtles hatch from all over the globe. They are everywhere except the Polar Regions.

Can you describe where you stayed?

I’m going to liken it to a dorm at a scout camp because most people can relate to that. It’s a long building with concrete floors and walls. The ceiling is tin. You can hear the iguanas crawling on top of it at night. You can hear their tails. The windows are four-feet wide and kept open all the time because it’s hot, so we were totally exposed. We slept in bunk beds with mosquito nets. You are basically living out of your book bag.

I shared a bathroom with 15 other girls. There was another bathroom for the ten guys at our dorm. And because of the plumbing you couldn’t flush toilet paper. We had three toilets. Right across from the toilets are three showers. One didn’t work, water dribbled out of the other two, and it’s all cold water. Now, keep in mind, between the 25 people in our dormitory, we could only run water one at time. So sink, shower, toilet, one a time between 25 people. So, you had to warn people, “Hey, I’m showering,” or “I’m going to flush” or “I’m going to brush my teeth.” These are the conversations that occur.

What was a normal day of volunteering like? 

We had dayshifts from 9 -11 am and then between 3-5 pm. The night shifts were three hours sometime between 7:30 PM -1:30 am.

At night we patrolled the shoreline to find turtles heading to the beach or already laying their eggs. Raccoons are a natural predator, so we’d fend off the raccoons so the turtle could lay her eggs. Then, as she’s laying her eggs, we dug, stroke for stroke, behind her to make a parallel tunnel so that we could collect the eggs. Once we collected the eggs we took them back to the hatchery, dug a hole, and buried them. We also did hatchery patrol. If I was on this shift, I was chilling at the beach fort and every 30 minutes I checked the hatcheries. When the baby turtles hatched, we took them to the ocean.

The day shifts were manual, sweaty labor. We built trails at a nature preserve where people can pay to hike and see the hatcheries. If people come at night, they can see the hatchlings go into the water. It’s kind of like a National Park in the United States. The lead biologist was very focused on improving the trail system, and he wanted to make new trails. Well, talk about sweating your butt off. So, the people in the front go through with machetes, then we went through with shovels to dig the plants out or with rakes to rake the leaves, and there are a lot of leaves in the jungle. Ultimately, better trails mean more people will come to the sanctuary and that means more money for the turtles.

Another task was picking up trash and sticks off the beach. There was an amazing amount of driftwood on the beach, and that’s important to move because the baby turtles can’t crawl over it. We called that natural trash.

What made you angriest about the human trash?

The trash is so disappointing because it can get lodged anywhere in the sea turtle. It gets lodged in the their nose, in their throat. And there is so much of it.

There are so many straws on the beach. One day I was like I’m going to count how many straws I pick up in two hours because that will be impactful. I lost count after thirty minutes.

Number two is plastic bottle caps. I didn’t think about this before, but now I notice how many things have plastic caps. Think about it for a minute next time you’re in the grocery store. Everything we buy has a cap.

And number three is shoes.

Shoes?

 I’m not making this up.

Do you feel like you made a difference?

In my heart, I want to feel like I made a difference. But when I think about those two weeks in the grand scheme of things, I’ll say no. For example, one of my tour guides told me that he traveled from the Philippines to Costa Rica. He said what registered on his navigation system was an island and that was an island of plastic that resides in the Pacific. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That kills me.

What I can do is focus on spreading a message, a message that makes people change their ways because it’s the small things that help. You go to the grocery store and get plastic bags. Where do those bag go? It’s floating around in the ocean and it looks like a jellyfish. The turtle eats it. It ends up in his stomach, and then the turtle is dead. Everything in our life is plastic. I find myself refusing bags at the store or bringing my own bags. I refuse straws, which sounds like such a small thing but it’s important and anybody can do it. Just refuse a straw.

I bought every member of my family a book about turtles, so that they understand that everybody can help. For instance, something else people can easily do is shut off their lights. If you live on the coast, shut off the lights because all of those hatching turtles are going to gravitate towards the light instead of the ocean. And then they’ll die. So, my point is I hope I can make a difference by educating people about the simple ways everybody can help.