As the appetite for turtle meat spread to the United States, the pig-sized reptiles began vanishing from Caribbean beaches—including Bermuda's. The lush seagrass pastures off the country's coast remain important feeding grounds for juvenile green turtles, herbivores that saw off vegetation with their serrated, toothless jaws. But while subadults from as far as the Mediterranean partake in Bermuda's submarine buffet, the island hasn't hosted a nesting population since the 1930s. "We'd all been hoping that someday this would happen again," Tacklin says. "But none of us expected it at all."
Burchall's discovery thrilled the entire country, yet it baffled scientists—where had the cryptic hatchling come from? To many, the turtle's presence raised a compelling question: had a seemingly futile conservation effort, abandoned amidst tragedy almost 40 years ago, actually succeeded?
Although Bermuda hasn't had nesting green turtles for decades, it wasn't for lack of trying. And trying. The nation's turtle recovery efforts date at least to 1963, when scientist David Wingate, Bermuda's first conservation officer, launched an audacious scheme to restore a crescent of rock and jungle called Nonsuch Island.
Nonsuch, about the size of nine city blocks, lies in the northeastern corner of the Bermuda archipelago. Wingate, who'd studied zoology at Cornell University in New York State before returning to his native Bermuda, hoped to transform the island into a living museum—a re-creation of what the outpost probably looked like before British settlers devoured seabirds, introduced rats, and generally bollixed up the ecosystem. Over the decades, Wingate vanquished invasive rodents, planted native vegetation, and reintroduced species, from the yellow-crowned night heron to a resplendent snail called the West Indian top shell.
But for Wingate and his fellow Bermudans, the Nonsuch Island Living Museum remained incomplete without one of its most charismatic ex-residents: the green sea turtle.
Fortunately, Wingate was not the only biologist then trying to bring back vanished marine reptiles. In 1959, another legendary scientist, Archie Carr, had begun Operation Green Turtle, his own ambitious restoration project for the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (now known as Sea Turtle Conservancy). Under the plan's auspices, Carr collected 130,000 green hatchlings at Tortuguero, a turtle-rich stretch of Costa Rican shoreline, over 10 years, and relocated the younglings to Barbados, Honduras, Belize, Puerto Rico, and other coasts that had been ransacked for their turtles. The US Navy assisted Carr's effort, donating several amphibious planes to airlift the animals. With any luck, Carr thought, the turtles would imprint on their new homes and, years hence, return to their release sites to lay eggs.
Several years into the project, by fortuitous coincidence, Wingate wrote Carr a letter soliciting suggestions for repatriating turtles to his living museum. When Carr described Operation Green Turtle to his Bermudan colleague, Wingate realized he'd found the solution to repopulating Nonsuch Island's shores. By that point, Carr had come to believe that hatchlings were too old to imprint upon unfamiliar beaches, so he decided to relocate eggs instead of newborns. The two scientists traveled repeatedly to Tortuguero, crouching behind mama turtles and gingerly transferring clutches of freshly laid spheres into styrofoam boxes. After the navy requisitioned its military airplanes for the Vietnam War in 1968, collecting trips became perilous. On one occasion, Wingate's tiny chartered plane was so crammed with eggs that his wife, Anita, perched on his lap. "I remember the pilot doing the sign of the cross as he set off down the grass runway with the rainforest looming ahead of us," Wingate recalls.