10/03/2011 08:11 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

A Wake Up Call From Maldivian Turtles and Mantas

Irony is often cruel to newborn sea turtles. After hatching, they make a mad dash from sand to sea. The hitch: instead of being equipped with feet designed for running they are outfitted with flippers perfect for swimming that turn out to be an incredibly inefficient means of overland transportation. Many hatchlings die of dehydration staring at a body of water.

Flashback to January 1978. I'm seven years old and drowning in a sea of tears. I've just watched the Denver Broncos lose to the Dallas Cowboys in the Superbowl. I am devastated and yet I'm not a fan of Denver. For an unknown reason, I'm simply drawn to underdogs and this year it was the Broncos turn to crush my spirits. In my adult life, I've suppressed this innate tendency. I didn't expect a vacation to the Maldives to propel it to the surface.

It began when I meet Patrick, one of the scientists at the marine research center at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa. He lays out the parameters of his battle. In the Maldives, turtle eggs are a delicacy, so instead of hatchlings participating in an epic scramble for life, they become scrambled eggs. Island sprawl is exposing formerly uninhabited islands and turtle habitat to human settlement. As more nests are discovered, more eggs are consumed. The result: a precipitous decline in turtle populations. The solution: nest protection and temporary adoption.

Nest protection comes down to dollars and cents. Locals get $50 at market for a nest of eggs. The Four Seasons pays $150 if locals protect a nest and produce hatchlings. And once hatchlings emerge, Patrick goes to work: 90 percent are given a boat ride past the reef's edge, increasing their chances of survival by introducing them to currents where they can ride in piles of sea grass across vast swaths of ocean. The remaining 10 percent are the lucky "adoptees." They will spend approximately twelve months being raised in captivity at which point there larger size and hardened shell will offer them significantly better odds at reaching adulthood.

I stare down at fifteen two-day old hatchlings, safely paddling about in a pool at the research facility. When I was a first-year law student, I thought I'd end up an advocate on behalf of animals like these. But for the past ten years, I've chosen a more lucrative, less fulfilling path. Meeting a scientist chasing truly noble pursuits and simply learning about the turtles plight has me questioning this choice. Getting up close and personal to another underdog leaves me no choice.

I arrive at Four Seasons Landaa Giravaru and board its marine research boat. We are bound for Hanifaru Bay, a uniquely shaped deep-water channel where the perfect meeting of wind and current produce a state of utter planktonia, a magnet for manta rays. We jump in and start snorkeling. Within minutes, I see a large shadow emerge from the abyss. It starts to move upward and I notice an oversized mouth, completely agape, imbibing vast amounts of the plankton-drenched water. Hmm, why is it heading directly for me?

With the largest brain to body ratio of all cartilaginous fish, the manta is known to be curious and engaging. I'm hoping that a drunk manta has better coordination and social skills than a similarly situated human. It does. Moving with the grace of a ballerina, it glides to within a foot of my arm, turns sideways and exposes its eye to mine. It skims the surface of the water, spins around and comes in for a second look, ducking right under my chest. The moment ends too soon and off it swims. We meet another four or five mantas and then call it a day.

On the way back, a scientist from Sri Lanka shares his story: In the Maldives mantas are a protected species but the same is not true in his homeland. Some Chinese believe the gills have magic medicinal properties and Sri Lankan fishermen supply that demand. This scientist is single-handedly attempting to combat this ongoing tragedy. To collect critical data so that he can prove the practice is unsustainable, he wakes at 3 a.m. everyday to document the type and number of rays passing through Sri Lanka's local fish markets. Its an uphill battle but he remains steadfast.

As our boat ride continues in silence, I imagine one of these gentle giants wrapped in a fishing net bound for meaningless slaughter. Moments ago, this inquisitive creature and I shared a connection. Imagining someone taking advantage of its trusting nature physically upsets me. Perhaps my recent graduation from 30-something to 40 is helping to fuel this fire. As I face a decreasing supply of days in my life and steady demand, the value of each day goes up and I want to do something meaningful with what's left. As I disembark at Landaa Giravaru, I am determined to heed the call of the underdogs, a call that only weeks ago lay dormant.

Overdogs, beware.