by Jack Rudloe
The Gulf of Mexico has been called “the Mediterranean of the Americas.” Rich in cultural history, oil, minerals, sunken treasure ships and some of the richest shrimping grounds; it remains a mystery– one of the least known bodies of water in the world. Split by the Mississippi River, the Eastern Gulf is wilderness, and remote marsh and mangrove shores, with vast shallow tide flats covered with sea grass and lime rock. The Western Gulf is a sea of oil rigs, blinking lights, oil refineries, and shipping lanes. With the interminable mosquito infested marshlands of Louisiana, soft soupy bottoms, oyster bars and opaque turbid waters it’s described as “an ocean that only a mother could love.”
It’s usually so calm and muddy, that only during its frequent hurricanes and storms does one see giant rolling waves crashing on shore. Yet with its small tidal range, which averages less than a foot, and its thousands of square miles of tidal mud flats that stretch from Florida to Texas, it has some of the deepest water in the world. As ocean go, the Gulf of Mexico is a small, nearly land locked body of water surrounded by the United States, Mexico and the and Cuba, with just a narrow opening out into the Atlantic through the Straights of Yucatan. And when a hurricane brews up off Africa, heads west across the ocean and enters the Gulf, watch out, someone’s going to get it. Some of the biggest storms in history have smashed into the shores of Mexico, but Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have taken their share. Florida has a few minor brushes with Prahaka– the mother of storms. The time of reckoning is yet to come.
In the Southern Gulf off the Yucatan, the influence of the rivers fades out, and sparkling transparent waters and coral reefs make it an underwater paradise. This five million square mile body of water is ocean where you can still travel for days across the Gulf, outside the major shipping lanes and meet no one, only vast expanses of sky and sea. Where pirate ships once roamed, dope smugglers and drug runners now follow remote paths, moving through the darkness, hiding their wares on the interminable stretches of barrier islands and wild mangrove keys that ring the coast. The Gulf of Mexico has been called the “mother” of the Gulf Stream. The biggest gyre of all, Gulf Loop Current spirals around in this inland sea, then becomes an ocean highway, filled with sea turtles, whales , sharks and vast schools of fish, streaming out between Cuba and Florida before heading North sometimes carrying eddies of muddy Mississippi water teeming with brown shrimp larvae far out into the Atlantic. The much talked about Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle breed in broad daylight on the shores of Rancho Nuevo, south of Tamilipas when the winds are gusting and heavy seas pound on the beach.
So endangered are these turtles, because of the rapid decline in their populations over the past fifty years, that strong new laws have been imposed on the American shrimping industry. Boats are required to pull Turtle Excluder Devices that so reduce their catches, that they have blockaded ports in protests, and practically produced a civil war… While great numbers of these small round shelled grayish green turtles are found in the eastern Gulf, they routinely pop up in the Atlantic, appearing Chesapeake Bay, in Boston Harbor and as far north as Nova Scotia. Yet nowhere has anyone ever found the first bone, skull or piece of shell from this once abundant little turtle that loves to eat crabs in the shallow bars, creeks and intertidal oyster bars. Zoo-archaeologists have unearthed plenty of green turtle remains, loggerheads and diamond back terrapin, but not a sign of the little greenish gray turtle that once seethed to their natal nesting beaches by the millions along the Mexican shores.
While the inhabitants of the Northern Gulf Coast were still making primitive fire tempered clay pots, roasting turtles over open fires. digging clams and scratching out a bare hunter gatherer existence eating fish, turtle, berries and roots, one of the greatest civilizations in the world mushroomed “across the pond” in nearby Central America.
A thousand years before the Spanish sailed their treasure ships and plundered the Aztec’s gold, Mayans built enormous pyramids that rose above the flat green jungles. The Aztecs hauled sea turtles high up into the mountains of Antigua and kept them alive in manmade ponds until it was time to butcher them. And several thousand years earlier, their ancestors, the Olmecs developed Calendars more accurate than our own, built sun dials, magic mirrors, and aligned their structures to the mountains and the rising sun using lodestone compasses.
Not far from where the few remaining ridleys now breed, the Olmecs were first discovered on the swampy shores of the Mexican Gulf, at the turn of the century when archaeologists unearthed giant human heads carved from limestone. They stared with disbelief and amazement at the grim faces of ancient helmeted ball players with Negro features. In many ways they were analogous to the giant human heads on Easter Island far away in the Pacific. Who were these Pre-Columbian people, with their exquisite, oriental jade carvings of earth goddesses giving birth, with their monuments of god with stately Egyptian-like ceremonial beards, and elaborate cultures? The “Ank” symbol found next to a rock shaped like a turtle’s head with a magnetic nose, the ear spools, all hinted of a time when ancient seafarers from other continents visited the new world, spreading their influence.
Did this highly advanced civilization suddenly spring up “fully formed” on the shores of the Gulf, or did the influence come from afar? Some speculated that the Olmecs rafted across the Pacific four thousand years ago, and spread their advanced civilization and culture throughout Central and South America. If they did, as Thor Heyerdahl believed, they no doubt met vast flotillas of Pacific ridley sea turtles, often sleeping on the surface with masked boobies perched on their backs. Ship wrecked victims in the Pacific have reported these little turtles swimming right up to their rafts and grabbing them out of the water. Just as the flesh of the green sea turtle provided sustenance for early explorers, soldiers and buccaneers in the New York, the ancients may have dined on the ridleys, greens, leatherbacks, and loggerheads they encountered on the high seas.
Archaeologists have found kitchen middens filled with turtle remains going back to l500 B.C. on the shores of Guatemala and declared that both the flesh and eggs were a major source of protein. The ancients, whoever they were and wherever they came from, lived at a time when sea turtles were prevalent and all over the oceans. They didn’t come across one or two of the reptiles swimming at a time, they saw thousands. And like the early Spanish explorers, they could stack the turtles in the bottom of their sea going canoes or rafts, keep them alive, and dine on them for months as they drifted with the eastern drifting ocean currents and the trade winds. With the bluest skies above, and up to twenty miles of water beneath them, they followed the rising sun, watching the big orange sphere emerge from of the sea at dawn, and behind them, to the west, sink back down into the depths at sunset. At night the stars blazed down upon the sea and perhaps these early travelers from China, Sumatra, Phoenicia or where-ever set their course using a sliver of lodestone floating on a leaf in an upturned turtle shell, gaining a constant and fixed direction in a vast open sea.
On a flat calm night, they could look up at the big dipper blazing above, and take a bearing on the North Star. Running perpendicular to it, blown before the wind ,compensating for drift, they watched the lodestone needled always pointing north, guided by the spirits within the stone, as they moved across the endless flat blue horizon until banks of clouds rose above the land. At some point during their voyage they likely met vast flotillas of turtles with their own built in compasses and followed them to shore.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, millions of Pacific ridleys converged on the shores of Central America. And these ancient travelers, if they existed at all, witnessed uncountable thousands of these gray shelled little turtles nesting in mass arrabadas so thick, they churned over the beaches and dug each other’s eggs up. Not only did they provide meat for the voyage, but nutritious and delicious omelets.
The generations that followed, may have gone on to colonize the southern shores of the Gulf of Mexico, carving the colossal helmeted heads and later the pyramids. That no doubt took longer, perhaps a thousand years or more. As populations grew and spread out, people had to cross high mountains and rough terrain of the isthmus of Central America. Traveling by raft was simpler; you just got on and went. Ascending the steep slopes and mountainous ridges was another story. It took generations, and when they arrived on the Gulf Coast, they would have met the Atlantic, or Kemps ridleys, as well as the large fat green turtles that dined on the sea grass beds, the loggerheads, hawksbills and leatherbacks to sustain them. For there were turtles throughout the oceans of the world, in vast unexploited numbers.
Before this time, so called “primitive” man had a simple appreciation for nature and the creatures that provided them with such tasty sustenance. When man lived in harmony with nature and he felt the necessity to take the life of a creature for food, he wove elaborate rituals, stories and myths honoring the creature with song or story before slaughter. You placated the spirits because of the gods of the sea and the land the sky became angry at you, they withdrew their blessings and you died. It was all that simple. These propitiating rituals existed in every part of the globe, whether it was the south Pacific and the Indian Ocean, where men fasted and prayed before hunting dugongs or in the frozen snow bound arctic where Eskimos harpooned seals, begging the forgiveness of their spirits and expressing gratitude by offering sacrifices.
The North American Indians decorated certain trees with flowers and sang their praise before chopping them down to build totem poles. And the aborigines in Australia painted turtles eating the deadly sea wasp jellyfish on the primordial rocks to honor them.
And in the Indian Ocean the Sakalava tribes of Madagascar decorated their pirogues with flowers, fasted, abstained from sex and made elaborate sacrifices to the spirits before going out on a night’s hunt so turtle fishing would be favorable. Mankind has always woven the animals they eat into their mythology and culture, the spirits of the animals intertwined in legend, culture and the psyche and merged as one with their ancestors. The biological facts of animal migrations and behavior that mystify scientists today blended with creative imagination and fantasy. Bird and turtle appear in legends, and even in comic strip characters like “B.C.” perhaps because of things like the white bellied turns appear precisely the same time that the Green sea turtles arrive in droves at the Ascension Islands to lay their eggs. And the great flotillas of Pacific Ridleys have been observed floating on the surface far out at sea with the Masked Booby’s using them as rafts.
Animal myths have worked their way into our moral fibers. From Africa came the legend of the Tortoise and the Hare, and it has come to symbolize the strong, steady and determined win out over the flighty, who rush about. It goes back to our very origins. Creation myths are so widespread around the globe in China, North America, and Africa of how a goddess came out of the sea, and married the first man and began the race that it makes one think we were all one people.
Based on some of the later Mayan artwork, there was a belief that their origins began with the turtle. Painted on the vase was the young god “N” in all his ornate headdresses, bursting out of the back of a tortoise. As the Orientals, the Asiatic and African cultures did, the Pre-Columbian peoples worshipped the reptilian spirits, the saw the world on the back of a crocodile, or intertwined with serpents. They venerated “Choc” the rain god, a frog, and Quetzelquotl, the feathered serpent, in stone, and paintings with skill and beauty covering the countryside and temples with zoo morphs.
Without question, whoever these “Olmecs” were, (by the way Olmec means “Rubber People from the South”) they were sea faring traders, who sailed the Caribbean in enormous dugout canoes, either across the Gulf, or along the coasts bringing items of trade and perhaps spreading the religion of the Sun God, the Feathered Serpent, and the Turtle Mother far into North America, certainly as far north as the Ohio valley. Was this the route of the turtle mother legend, the rock that was shaped like a turtle and drew turtles to the beach, and brought the message that we must respect our environment?
Respect for nature is gone from our culture. The power harpoon replaces the whale bone lance, buzz saws fell trees with no ceremony as entire forests are clear cut, and the protein of the sea is processed into giant freezer plants on a mass production basis.
And with a burgeoning world population, until a few years ago where ever a sea turtle swam there was a drift net, a waiting pair of hands and a butcher knife. Recently, and for the moment in the continental United States that is no longer true. Society has banded together with laws– not always enforceable– to try and protect them because somewhere in the deep, inner reaches of our minds, we know turtles and wildlife are still our roots. Even with the animosity that shrimpers feel, having been forced to put on turtle excluder devices, they still talk about the “curse of the turtle, ” which begins when someone maliciously and wastefully kills a turtle, not for food, but just for spite.
Nothing good befalls them. When a toddler sees a turtle crawling along, more often than not he gets excited. One mother told me her child’s first words were “hi Turtle,” yet they shrink in terror at a dock that could inflict harm, and begin howling for mother.
In a perverted culture that smothers nature with asphalt, we still venerate the life we’re destroying, naming streets in wetland filled in subdivisions, “Blue Heron Way,” and “Manatee Lane,” and “Green Turtle Villas.” Our automobiles bear the name “Sky Lark,” “Falcon,” and “Cougar” as we speed over long destroyed habitats where these creatures once roamed. We are still venerating our totem animals—had I been an Iroquois Indian, I would most certainly have been a member of the Turtle Clan. But we know in our guts that if trends aren’t reversed soon, the voice of the turtle will no longer be heard in the land.
Jack Rudloe is the founder of the popular Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories, Inc. in Panacea, Florida (www.gulfspecimen.org), a unique environmental education center and public aquarium that supplies marine organisms to schools and research laboratories.
Mr. Rudloe has been featured in several documentaries on PBS and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, Good Morning America, the Fox Network and National Public Radio. A participant in the International Indian Ocean Expedition (1963-64), and has made collecting trips for the New York Aquarium, and the National Cancer Institute among others. A prolific writer, Jack has authored (often with his late wife, Dr. Anne Rudloe) a number of acclaimed books on marine ecology. Jack is also the author of “Potluck,” a novel about shrimping and smuggling along the Florida Panhandle. He is currently working on a new novel.
This article was originally published 02-Jul-08 on ForgottenCoastLine.com.