Q&A with Bill Streever, author of A Sea Full of Turtles

EcoLit contributor Bill Streever has a new book out, A Sea Full of Turtles, and it provides a hopeful antidote to the more dystopian environmental literature in bookstores today. Bill’s book left me feeling optimistic. I hope it does for you as well.

I recently asked Bill about the book and here’s what he had to say…

What inspired A Sea Full of Turtles?
Well, I think this requires a two-part (and possibly long-winded) answer.  

First, like most biologists I am alarmed by the way things are going in the world today.  Climate change and the extinction crisis are on my mind all the time, along with a host of other worries about what it takes for eight billion people to live on Earth in a manner that at least strives for sustainability.  

But it is tough to go through life feeling like things are falling apart around you. So as a writer I wanted to explore the theme of optimism. Is there any possible argument in support of hope, in a belief in a brighter future? This was something I had been thinking about for some time, but I had not found a way to present this quest for optimism as a story.  So I was on the prowl for a way to build this story of a quest for optimism.  

And then, while sailing along the west coast of Mexico during the height of the COVID pandemic,  my wife and I saw lots of full-grown sea turtles.  Most were olive ridleys, but we also saw quite a few greens.  And we saw them mating.  

When I was a kid (I’m sixty-two years old now), extinction of sea turtles was a real possibility. Today, all seven of the species that were alive in the 1960s remain with us. Not only had they survived, but in the case of olive ridleys and greens they were common enough that we were watching them mate.  While we have lost way too many species of animals and plants in my lifetime, lots of other species have come back from the brink of extinction.  

After many hours at the helm, staring at the waves and occasionally seeing yet another pair of mating sea turtles, I realized that I could explore environmental optimism through sea turtles.  And that, of course, became A Sea Full of Turtles.    

In your book you guide readers through your experiences protecting turtles hatching along the coast of Mexico. What’s it like watching those tiny turtles leave shortly for the ocean?
My training as a biologist taught me to look at plants and animals with detachment, as subjects of interest. I think this bias in training should be abandoned, and really this aspect of educating young biologists has started to change at least somewhat in the past few decades. Animals and plants are not inanimate objects and whether objects of study or not they should not be thought of that way.  

For me, watching sea turtle hatchlings make their way across the beach to the sea put another nail in the coffin of my training bias. These tiny creatures, which must be the world’s cutest reptiles, have no more than a tiny chance of surviving to adulthood, yet here they go, sprinting toward the sea, plunging into waves that are often more than twenty times their size. 

It is not possible to watch this sort of thing without some sort of emotional attachment. People I interviewed about their own reactions to turtle releases—I must have interviewed three or four dozen people just after hatchling releases—were without exception moved. Retired pilots, aging nurses, engineers, little children—I could not find a single person who could describe a hatchling release without an emotional component. And organizations fighting to promote turtle conservation understand the value of this emotional component. They understand that anyone who has seen a hatchling release has in all likelihood become a lifetime supporter of turtle conservation.  

Long before “vanlife” became a thing people have been living and traveling on their boats, including you and your wife Liusanne. Any advice or words of wisdom from someone who has lived on the water for so long?
Wow. That could be a book in itself, and in fact there are lots of books on that exact topic.  I guess two things jump to the top when I talk to people about our lives.  

First, realize that living this particular dream comes with its downsides. There is the burden of fixing and maintaining the boat. There are uncertainties with regard to things like weather, the risks presented by ship traffic, space availability in the next planned anchorage. There are also the difficulties that accompany anyone in today’s world who does not have a fixed address. There are the costs, which can be much higher than they are often presented by people in the business of selling boats and of promoting boating life. All of this is why so few people continue sailing fulltime for more than a few years.  

But second, and this is really important, I would say that almost anyone who dreams of pursuing this lifestyle can, with a bit of planning and foresight, make it happen.    

What do you hope readers take away from A Sea Full of Turtles?
I would like to think that readers will leave this book understanding the importance of optimism not only in life but in the conservation movement. Readers may not agree with my position, but they should at least see that an argument can be made on behalf of environmental optimism. The way we humans interact with the world is changing and will continue to change for the better. We have real challenges ahead, but there is room for hope. 

Obviously, this is a book about sea turtle conservation, but you go way beyond sea turtles to other species and as the book progresses you focus more on human behaviors. Was that an intended trajectory for the book?
The subtitle of my book is The Search for Optimism in an Epoch of Extinction. I really was on a search, so there was no intended trajectory at the outset. When I started I was not at all sure that my search would turn up anything at all supporting optimism (in which case I supposed the subtitle would have had to be something like The Failed Search for Optimism in an Epoch of Extinction). 

As I worked on the book, I was at times somewhat desperately looking for ways to feel better about where the world is and where it is going. The quest started with sea turtles, which quickly led to other species, which moved on in turn to people and human behaviors, some horrible and some absolutely inspiring.  

When I finished the first draft of the book, I realized that there was an underlying trajectory, and I emphasized it a bit during revisions, but it was a trajectory that grew from my travels, my research, and my interviews. 

You write about buying conservation land instead of expensive consumer products: “If something like this [buying conservation land] were to become fashionable among the moderately wealthy, say as fashionable as owning a newer model luxury car, the world would, to those of us who love biodiversity, be a better place.” What land in particular is in most need of protecting right now?
Of course, there is already a conservation land movement in play. Hundreds of thousands of acres are owned and managed by private citizens not only in the United States but in many countries. After writing the passage that you mention here, my wife and I bought 66 acres of conservation land in coastal Maine, so we have become part of this movement and we are only now realizing just how extensive that movement is. 

As to what land in particular is in most need of protection, I am not sure. Any land that is at risk of development is worthy of consideration, and especially so if that land could support an endangered or threatened species. But of course it is not that simple, since most land is at risk of development in a world of eight billion people and since so many species are at risk of extinction.  

I think potential buyers should also ask themselves if they have the wherewithal to protect and manage a particular piece of land in a responsible manner. If not, they might want to look for a different piece of land, or they might consider working with a land trust or organizations like The Nature Conservancy.  

You write about the need to speak up for nature conservation, to champion it, but then go on to say that in doing so “you are only being reasonable and rational.” Why did you feel a need to say that?   
Almost every day I run into people who grumble about environmental regulations or who say that they do not believe in human-caused climate change or who are quick to label people like me as tree-hugging weirdos or worse.  In our boating lives, fishermen and especially spear fishermen seem especially likely to complain about rules intended to promote conservation, and many owners of large motor yachts and fast sportfishing boats seem eager to talk about their frustration with efforts to reduce carbon emissions. 

I like most people, and I enjoy talking to people, even people who do not exactly share my view of the world. And usually these conversations about the environment come up in social settings where it would be easy to politely agree with the trend of the majority because, after all, being agreeable is a natural way of getting along with others, as we all learn in kindergarten.  

So I’ve nurtured a knack for talking to people about environmental issues in a way that, at least sometimes, short circuits the move toward a dismissive defensive posture and makes them think about their own attitudes. But in doing this, especially in a group of people who are loudly expressing their disgust with the environmental movement, I often have to remind myself that my position is reasonable and rational, in fact far more so than views that dismiss concerns about the environment.  

What conservation organization(s) would you like readers to support having read your book?
Readers should consider their own values when thinking about support of conservation organizations.  They could, for example, consider if they would rather support a local organization or an international organization. In some regions, especially those where the cost of labor is high, readers might consider offering support in the form of volunteering. Readers might want to think about how much more difficult it is to generate operating funds in the developing world than it is in the United States, or about how much further money goes in the developing world.  

The needs out there are endless, so the important thing is for readers to support conservation in a way that will hold their interest for many years to come. Having said all that, I personally tend to support smaller grassroots conservation efforts in the developing world. Most of my proceeds from this book will support sea turtle conservation organizations in Mexico, although I have also donated some of my proceeds to small conservation organizations in the United States.  

What’s your next writing project?
At the moment, I have a long list of ideas. A book is a big commitment, and I don’t want to push the incubation time too hard. Check back in next year and I might have an answer.  

Bill Streever would love to hear from readers with questions, comments, or suggestions.  He can be reached at www.billstreever.com.



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