All the Way Down

At the swimming pool, Wistar and I sometimes poke around in the filters to see what animal carnage might be swirling around. Usually it’s frogs, Japanese beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers or some combination. This is especially true during summer storms, like this week’s heavy rainfall which surely killed hundreds of animals unlucky enough to be trapped in small spaces.

But yesterday we found something else – a turtle, exhausted and barely able to stay afloat any longer, supporting a frog on its back while a spider clung to the frog’s head to avoid drowning.


We guessed it had been 3 days since the storms hit, when the filters were last emptied. Somehow the three had survived in 8″ of water, one of top of the other like ice cream scoops. Even after their rescue, they were reluctant to part ways. Finally, the spider disappeared into the grass and the frog hopped in the other direction.

For some reason this weird little event stuck with me. I thought about turtles in mythology. The Hindu god Vishnu had taken the avatar form of a turtle (“Kurma”) and held mountains on his back. Another Iroquois creation myth depicts the North American continent as supported by the strength and steadfastness of a turtle.

These are great stories. Theoretically, they should make agnosticism more difficult, if you don’t ordinarily feel comfortable with supernatural explanations or resist speculation about what greater force might be out there, carrying us all on its back.

I’m more likely to be contrary and ask, “if the turtle holds up the world, who holds up the turtle?”, as the anecdote goes:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

It was Wistar’s father, a skilled surgeon, who held up this particular turtle yesterday so that we could snap some pictures. The turtle was surprisingly at ease in someone else’s hands. He may have been shocked or exhausted or just relieved to be found. On another day, all alone, he would not have been so lucky.


The picture has generated quite a few comments on Reddit and Post Punk Kitchen, plus an inspirational poster. The Cvillain folks also Dugg it.

I’ve also published a more comprehensive follow-up.

  • david

    I think this may be the greatest blog post I’ve read in months. A event, an interesting and relevant picture, and a touch of philosophy thrown in. Glad you shared it.

  • Matt

    Amazing, Darren. Thanks for this.

    Also: that’s probably the most diggable image I’ve ever seen outside of Digg.

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  • Erika

    I’m sorry, the goodness of your post was lost in how grossed out I am by that big ass spider. *cringe* LOL!

  • Lonnie

    Wow, what a great photo!

    As for the meaning of it, it is my own opinion that many native religions took their original inspiration from Nature. It was then the major religions that took their inspiration from native traditions. I personally feel there is great depth of meaning in nature, and not just that which we impose upon it. As Lynn Margulis discovered, cooperation plays a vital role in evolution. In fact, all plants are the result of the symbiotic fusion of two different species from two different kingdoms of life. It is the lesson of cooperation between species that I think Humanity could really stand to learn something from.

  • DJ ROB A


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  • Lawrence Krubner

    I emailed this story to about 20 of my friends.

  • Darren

    @david, matt, erika, rob lawrence: I don’t usually post stuff like this so I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    @Lonnie: I agree about wishing for more rotuine cooperation among humans. Too often it’s fleeting and only happens during tragedy.

  • Hafiz Rahman

    This is beautiful in some ways I cannot comprehend. Wonderful.

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  • Wendy

    Wow! And to think, right about now Canadian Geese are carrying hummingbirds across the Gulf of Mexico on their backs. Looking for the eye of the hurricane. At least that’s what I was told. I’m starting to believe it after seeing this pic.

  • Renae

    This is the first time I’ve been to your blog and I just want to say that this is an amazing photo and story. Glad you could save them after they displayed such a strong will to survive.

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  • Harry Roberts

    This is a different kind of amazing! Brought a smile to my face :)

  • Sunny

    That is amazing- truth can be stranger than fiction!

  • Robert A. Sloan

    Thank you for a wonderful photo and a fantastic story. I look at this and my heart warms. Someone, maybe you, ought to write it as the ending of a children’s story or fable. I think this is where fables come from. Real things that happen and make so much sense they stick in your mind. Thank you for posting this.

    It’s one of the coolest things I’ve read in a long time. It’ll stick with me as it will with many readers. It’ll come back up unrecognizably in something I do in fiction someday, but it’s gone down to where the stories come from and will leave its ripples. It was just what I needed to see to remind myself that this world is that beautiful sometimes and that rich.

  • Br!on

    My co-worker left this for me today on the computer. I am filled with gratitude. SO brilliant and smart and lovely.

    Cooperation and belief in each other can create survival and life.

    No religion, no politics . . . just appreciation.

  • chris makarsky

    wow, I’m ashamed it took me this long to catch this story. still totally awesome.

  • Bill

    Your story is nice, the picture adorable. But why it should prove agnosticism is wrong remains hidden to me. Isn’t this one great example for evolution and not for creation?

  • Darren

    But why it should prove agnosticism is wrong remains hidden to me. Isn’t this one great example for evolution and not for creation?

    I’m not saying any of this proves agnosticism wrong (I don’t think that’s even possible). I’m saying the myths themselves and the human need to believe in higher powers make agnosticism harder because at the end of the day, everyone wants to feel like someone is looking out for them. I’ve got no specific religious beliefs, so small events like this are just one more thing to ponder.



    btw, did you end up keeping the turtle??

  • EvilTomte

    “These are great stories. They make agnosticism that much harder, not feeling comfortable with supernatural explanations or resisting speculation about what greater force might be out there, carrying us all on its back.”

    Good story indeed, but doesn’t make explaining it hard :P If I were drowning and there was a turtle nearby I could stand on, I wouldn’t hesitate at all. ^^
    (I’m sure the spider and frog were glad they didn’t hesitate, too)

  • Araminta Star

    I admit that I only stumbled upon this story whilst relaxing before going off to work, and I must say, I’m touched by it. This story offers me hope and solace, for some reason. A turtle saves a spider and a frog from drowning? This is so Romantic, even Wordsworth wouldn’t have the words for it.

  • Anu

    Darren, this is so beautiful. it touched my heart. thank you for sharing it.

  • Calikit

    I believe that might actually be a tortoise. However, that does not change the pure awesomeness of that picture.

  • Kenneth Rougeau

    Great photo!!! I wanted to share a piece of art I made a bit back based on the “turtles all the way down” story ;) Hope you like it!

    Turtles All The Way Down by Kenneth Rougeau

  • Aimee

    I loved this picture so much I got it tattooed on my back last week. It was such a heartwarming story, I get chills when I tell people about it. What a unique and unusual situation of survival.

    Maybe the turtle had no idea there was a frog on his back, maybe the frog was so focused on staying alive he didn’t realize the spider on his head or maybe they had some sort of cognizance of the situation and realized they had to help each other to stay alive.

    Whatever the case, three seaparate and very different animals came together and survived a storm, most likely, they would not have survived if they were on their own.

    This is the real life “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” Someone should option the script… Hollywood would eat this up!!

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  • Mike

    The old woman was talking about Terry Pratchetts’ Discworld novels.

  • loucypher

    True Gnosis-Its another lesson from nature to show us as humans, that only unconditional love ;not just love of the world eg eros =our partners or our love of our country ,but LOVE UNCONDITIONAL is our only saving grace

  • Becky

    I just love turltes! They have been a part of my life since I can remember. My mom would always pull the car over to let me get out and put the turtle on the side of the road it was crawling towards! I actually would get mad and start crying if she did not let me save them out of the road!! She cut this story out of the newspaper called the Bristol Herald. I am from Wise, Virginia, and she made sure to give it to me today so I could put it with all of my turtle paraphernalia. I enjoyed this story so much I decided to write you and thank you for publishiing this picture.

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  • Mike

    I think the Turtle story was with Richard Bandler, in Frogs into Princes.

  • Sinema

    Super :) still totally awesome

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  • Rob Herman

    Sublime – The first thing that came to mind was the ancient pictures of the turtle holding the world on his back

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  • http://stumble MO

    Just adorable, best picture I’ve ever stumbled upon

  • Norman Baumgreen

    Call me Mr. sourpuss, but since when did a FROG need saving from drowning – it’s an amphibian.

    This is either shopped or staged. And it’s a TORTOISE. If it was a turtle it would be even more ridiculous. Why not throw a water spider in there and make it a complete joke?

    • Darren

      They were all trapped in a filter the size of a shoebox. The issue wasn’t that they couldn’t swim, it was that they were presumably trying to escape from being slammed around by the pool water going in and out during almost a week of storms. How they ended up on top of each other is obviously up to speculation. Not sure why you’d assume I have the free time or interest to Photoshop or stage something like this that I don’t benefit from.

    • erik

      all i have to say about your rude comment is have you ever worked at a pool? because if you have you would know that almost daily you can find at least one dead frog stuck in the filters. also pool water contains chemicals such as chlorine which for frogs is something that will kill them if they are stuck in the water for too long

    • Gates Ford

      Also, it’s not a tortoise, it’s a turtle, it has webbed feet. So shutup.

  • willyg243

    Its also kind of funny how the food chain is stacked. frogs eat insects, turtles eat frogs, and humans eat turtles

  • psychozis

    dis is like really really cool…something out of the ordinary and interesting…seriously,…nice post…something worth seeing….

  • jen

    This seems to presume that the frog has any idea he’s standing on a turtle and not a rock, that the spider thinks that frog’s lending a helping hand rather than having just clung to what seemed like the highest ground, and a handful of other anthropomorphisms. It’s a cool pic, but it seems like, with millions of pool filters and millions of storms and millions of bloggers, this had to happen eventually.

    • Jordan Cronk

      this is stupid.

    • Garrett Mickley

      Way to be a major bummer.

    • Silver

      What, like if you give enough monkeys a typewriter they’ll eventually write a Shakespeare play? Don’t be grumpy.

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  • Nacie Carson

    This post really made me stop and think. Awesome job, thanks so much for putting it out there!

  • Gloria

    What a wonderfully creative world we live in. I would have been so excited to spy this myself, truly. Mother Nature is Awesome, and cooperative, and I think many animals, (my cat and the neighborhood fox, for example) have an agreement. A turn taking, cooperative agreement. I suspect my cat and dog have this agreement as well, when we aren’t around.

    Thank you for sharing this story and this intriguing photograph!

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  • Jerome

    Very nice story, the kind of one which makes have a large smile ;)
    Thanks for sharing

  • Patrick

    The scientist in quesiton is Stephen Hawking. He mentions the old woman in his book, A Brief History of Time

  • kog

    actually the “it’s turtles all the way down” thing is from Terry Pratchett’s discworld series, if it hasn’t been mentioned before. An’Duin, the Great Turtle is what i think he’s called…
    oh, and the setup is the world is a giant disc on the back of four giant elephants who stand on the back of the giant turtle..or somesuch.

  • AnnaO

    simply lovely.

  • sadie

    I would just like to point out that the spider is nearly the size of the frog. Which is terrifying.

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  • Alec

    that turtle had the team on its back

  • Elizabeth

    I came across this post via Stumble Upon and its very heartwarming. Except it’s not a true turtle…it’s an Eastern Box Turtle (which is actually a tortoise). There are many differences between the 2…the most important is that tortoises sink fairly quickly and live on land. I am extremely suprised he didn’t drown. What a great story!

  • Brandi

    Such a beautiful photo, and a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thangaraju

    i must say thanks for this wonderful article…

  • Hannah

    I’m extremely tired of people posting rude comments about articles, simply because they have nothing else better to do. Images, stories, anything really is open to interpretation. This just happened to be one person’s view of something they discovered. If you choose to be cynical, and only see things at face value, I feel very sorry for you. You’re life must be extremely uninteresting.

  • Chimacintosh

    That is a touching story. So is the story of a dog who took in some puppies.

  • Noticias de Tecnologia

    Really nice post, loved the picture.

  • Jocuri

    I love your story and also the picture, How come you don’t have more posts like this one on the blog.

    P.S. Love your blog Darren, Keep up the Good work

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  • Samwise54

    That’s a tortoise. Turtles live in the sea. You are now smarter.

    • Carefulwhatyouprayfor

      I doubt you’ll see this, but there are many turtles who live on land. This looks like a box turtle of some sort. I live in the middle of the continent and we have plenty of turtles. I will not presume you are now smarter, though.

  • LoganCreed42

    you forgot the four elephants… the discworld sits on the back of four elephants who stand upon the shell of the great star-turtle The Great A’Tuin

    • John Holloway

      Used to be five elephants…

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  • Owen

    You should share this picture with our president, Mr. Obama. Tell him to show it to congress and the story of how in any other situation two of the three would be killing and eating the other. But because the situation requires it, they put their basic instinct aside and cooperate for the better good of all concerned. It’s a simplistic story, but with aspects that even the top leaders of the country should remember and take to heart.

  • sfabius

    Origin of turtles all the way down:

  • carson

    I’m not sure what is worse/scarier, being trapped in a water filter waiting to drown, or having a giant heinous spider wrestling with your head in the dark.