This is the first of a two-part series explaining sea turtle conservation and how you can volunteer.
The sea turtle has been symbolic for ages, spanning cultures across the globe. It can represent order, fertility, creation, strength, endurance, stability, and longevity, to name a few. It has held a place of esteem in many cultures as a protector, and a harbinger of happiness and good luck. You’d think with qualities like these (regardless of whether they are only attributed to the animal and not statements of fact), the sea turtle would remain unharmed by the majority. Unfortunately this is not the case, and in addition to intentional acts of hunting, the sea turtle suffers injury and death as a result of carelessness. Every species is threatened, and they need our help to rehabilitate their plight and propagate their numbers.
Fortunately, there are many ways in which you can help.
- Olive Ridley
- Kemp’s Ridley
Although they are marine reptiles, sea turtles breathe air. Their anaerobic method of breathing allows them to be submerged for long periods, surfacing to refill their lungs. A typical lifespan for a sea turtle can reach 80 years. However, the sea turtle only reaches sexual maturity at 8-10 years of age, and breeding occurs only 2-3 years at a time. When the female has successfully mated, she heads toward land, sometimes the very beach where she was hatched. A female, depending on the species, can lay 50-250 soft eggs, which she does by digging a hole in the sand with her back flippers, depositing the eggs when she has achieved the desired depth. Once laid, she covers them with sand and smooths the surface of the sand to prevent detection by predators. This is done nearly always under the cover of night, as is the hatching; an instinctual behavior adapted through evolution to avoid devastation by natural predators such as seagulls, raccoons, foxes, sharks, and of course, humans.
The eggs take about 2 months to incubate, depending on sand temperature. Interestingly, sand temperature plays a key role in the sex of the newborn sea turtles: warm sands result in shorter incubation periods and females, while cooler sands produce more males and take a bit longer to hatch. When it is time to face the world, the hatchlings break out of their shells with their snouts, and begin digging their way to the surface of the sand. From there it is a mad dash to the sea, where ocean life presents its own mortality risks. Some species immediately retreat to floating seaweed patches, where they find a ready source of food and shelter until they mature enough to venture out on their own.
You may naturally jump to the conclusion that the prolific number of eggs must produce almost as many offspring, barring eggs that don’t quite make it through the incubation process, and you are half right. While nearly all of the eggs laid do hatch, the process of making it into the ocean and facing predation on land and sea results in 0.01% of the hatchlings reaching adulthood. That’s one out of every hundred. This, coupled with the long periods of time between breeding, is one of the key natural reasons that sea turtles are limited in numbers. Add to that illegal hunting, by-catch, and changes to their nesting grounds and habitat due to development and climate change, and you see a little more clearly the severity of their circumstance. Like every creature on Earth, sea turtles play a crucial role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, in the ocean and on land.
But it doesn’t have to reach catastrophic proportions. There are many organizations that have taken up the sea turtle’s cause, and rely on the assistance of volunteers for research, tracking, and physically being a part of the incubation process, as well as the rehabilitation of habitats and the sea turtles themselves. Tomorrow’s article will tell you just how you can join forces and make a difference for the sea turtle.