Skeletons and Sea Turtles follows a young boy’s transformation from potential predator to fierce protector of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles. They have been nesting on the beach near his home throughout his entire life, but until now they’ve barely captured his attention.
It begins with a late night one-on-one encounter with a lone nesting turtle. The experience is both immensely personal and universal. Simply expressed, close personal contact with another living being, human or animal, causes a shift in relationship – from stranger to friend.
Eleven year-old Hericel lives with his family in Playa Escobilla, on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. Every year during the nights after the full moons of summer and fall, thousands of sea turtles lumber awkwardly up the shore to dig their nests in the sand just yards from his house. Often the eggs hatch around the time of Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
Towns all over Mexico brim with exciting festivities and stunning displays of vibrant color during this annual holiday that celebrates loved ones who have died. Sugar skulls and smiling skeletons poke fun at death and hark back to the ancient beliefs that death is a continuation of life, and the spirit lives on after the body dies. Hericel is looking forward to Day of the Dead. This year he will help his parents prepare a traditional altar with all of abuelo’s (his grandfather’s) favorite foods. Hericel had a close relationship with abuelo, who died when he was nine. The two of them spent long, lazy days together, that often ended with a walk along the beach, where they would stop to watch the turtles laying their eggs. Abuelo told Hericel how he used to love the eggs. He would crack them open and swallow the contents.
“Yuck,” Hericel would think to himself, secretly glad that he and abuelo weren’t allowed to pick up the slimy looking Ping-Pong balls, which were now protected after too many years of indiscriminate harvesting.
One night, not long before Day of the Dead, Hericel is walking home deep in thought. He doesn’t notice the bright face of the moon smiling above the horizon. He doesn’t notice the sparkling silver path it paints on the velvet black sea. And he almost doesn’t notice the turtle.
Her wet shell twinkles in the moonlight and catches his eye as she paddles awkwardly up the sand. The turtle doesn’t notice Hericel. She is too busy trying to get somewhere. He follows her quietly until she stops abruptly. When the turtle begins to dig, Hericel stands perfectly still and tries to make himself invisible. Using her flippers as shovels, the turtle makes a hole about the size of a kitchen sink. Then she starts laying her eggs. They look like slimy ping-pong balls. And they keep coming out, one after another.
Hericel sits down to watch. He tries counting the eggs as they come out, but he loses track at thirty-seven. When she finally finishes and is filling the nest with sand, Hericel takes a peek inside. He is tempted to grab one of the eggs to place on abuelo’s special Day of the Dead altar, but he does nothing. When the turtle slowly turns around to leave, and something happens. Something magical. She looks straight into Hericel’s eyes.
“These are my babies,” she seems to say. “Please protect them. I have to go.”
She glides back down into the sea and she is gone. Hericel shivers, but he is not cold. His stomach flutters, like there are butterflies inside. Had she really spoken to him? Hericel looks around for some sticks and stones. He carefully marks the nest, so he can find it when he comes back. Then he runs all the way home.
Hericel returns several times to observe the nest. Occasionally, he waves his arms to ward off birds that have come to pillage. He starts to think it might not be so bad to take just one egg for abuelo’s altar. One evening a ranger from the National Mexican Turtle Center comes to the beach and tells Hericel and his friends about the baby sea turtles and all the dangers they face from predators. She explains that only about one baby in a nest of one hundred survives to adulthood. This surprises Hericel and he realizes that if he does decide to take one egg, it could end up being the “one” that was destined to live.
Hericel’s dilemma is temporarily forgotten, as he gets swept up in the excitement of a school-wide competition for the best Day of the Dead altar. Assigned to find calacas – or handmade skeleton figurines – for his class display, Hericel goes with his father to the outdoor market in Pochutla, the nearest city. As they wander through the colorful stalls, the smell of freshly baked pan de los muertos fills the air, mounds of sugar skulls smile from the candy store windows, street vendors sell bunches of fragrant herbs, brilliantly colored cempasuchil, or marigolds, festoon the flower carts, and beautifully crafted calacas reveal an active afterlife, where they perform music, work at typewriters, dress for formal weddings and play their favorite sports.
Hericel’s uncle drops by for a visit a few days before Day of the Dead. He works at the nearby National Mexican Turtle Center. The Center has been converted from an old slaughterhouse into a facility for education and conservation of turtles. A steady flow of children and tourists come through the gates throughout the year. The uncle arranges a behind-the-scenes tour with a special surprise at the end: Hericel gets to swim in a large tank with seven full-grown Olive Ridley turtles! The experience overwhelms Hericel, who is captivated by the grace and gentleness of the enormous creatures. He realizes that he could never do anything to harm them. From that day on, Hericel camps out on the beach and watches over “his nest” until the eggs hatch. Then he protects the baby turtles, as they make their way into the sea, carefully pieces together one of the broken shells and places it on Abuelo’s altar.