Sea Turtles Need Help: Can you Dig it?
By Reneé Rades | NIE Educational Consultant
Turtle nesting – it's an event not many people can say they've seen, and if marine scientists and sea turtle advocates have their way, that number might stay low. That's because many human activities on and near beaches can put adult and baby sea turtles at risk. Coastal communities along Florida's Atlantic seaboard have been dealing with the problem of sea turtle safety for years, sometimes with sea turtle advocates and city officials butting heads, as reported in this article.
Sea turtles are reptiles that can live 80 years or more and may weigh up to 350 pounds, depending on the particular species of turtle. Sea turtles are among the oldest creatures on earth. Fossils as old as 150 million years have been found; some estimates make the turtle species' as much as 230 million years old (to put it in perspective, humans arrived on the scene only about six million years ago). The graceful animals spend most of their lives in the ocean, and have adapted ways of holding their breath so they can stay underwater for long periods of time. Sea turtles migrate (travel) throughout the oceans, often carried by the current, circulating between their nesting grounds and the places where they feed.
If you're thinking of Crush and Squirt, from Finding Nemo, you're not too far off – those two characters are green sea turtles, or Chelonia mydas. They're relatives of the five species of sea turtles you can encounter off of the Florida coast. However, real turtles don't talk like surfers, nor do they fight with ninja weapons and eat pizza.
Sea turtles mate offshore, and male turtles stay out at sea while females come ashore to lay their eggs. Sea turtles often nest in the same location as where they hatched, straying only a few yards away when they return to lay their eggs in the following years. The female turtle will come to shore in the evening, climb up toward the sand dunes, and use her flippers to dig a hole in which to lay her eggs. She will then lay anywhere between 70 and 150 eggs, bury them thoroughly with sand, and return to the ocean, leaving the eggs unattended. It takes about 10 weeks for sea turtles to gestate, and the emerging babies are about two inches long when they hatch. Sea turtles nest early in the summer, while the sand is warm enough to incubate the eggs. The temperature of the eggs will determine the gender of the hatchlings. As with many other reptiles, the warmer the temperature of the nest, the bigger percentage of females, but the gender isn't apparent until a turtle reaches adulthood.
When all the turtles in a particular nest have hatched, the babies work together to dig themselves out, spilling out onto the moonlit sand. While adult sea turtles lack many natural predators (attacking a turtle would be like attacking a 300-pound cow wearing body armor), sea turtle hatchlings are easy prey for…anything! Birds, crabs, and most importantly, people all pose a threat to the nearly defenseless hatchlings. They use light to find the ocean, following the brightest thing they see, which for them is supposed to be the moonlight reflecting off water. However, bright lights from streets, homes and cars can distract the hatchlings and send them towards the roads and away from the water. Away from the water, the hatchlings die from dehydration or starvation, if they aren't eaten or squashed first. If they don't get distracted, the baby turtles scramble for the ocean by the dozen, where the current will pick them up and sweep them out to sea and they can hide in and feed off of sargassum (a kind of seaweed), until they are big enough to defend themselves and join the migration from nesting beaches to feeding ground. According to turtle experts, it's a cycle that's been going on for millions of years without a hitch – until people started to interfere.
A green sea turtle which has being rehabilitated at Marine Science Center at Ponce Inlet Tuesday April 27, 2004. This turtle will be released after it has been determined it can live on its own. (Photo: N-J/Roger Simms)
Groups like the Turtle Advocates in Flagler County recognize that human activities on and near turtle nesting sites have put sea turtles in danger of extinction. Lights are only a small part of the problem. Human interaction with nesting sea turtles can frighten females and make them abandon a site without laying their eggs. Pollution from oil or chemicals in the water can poison both adult sea turtles and their hatchlings. Floating debris can be mistaken for seaweed or jellyfish (a mainstay of the sea turtle's diet) and be eaten by a turtle, choking it. Boat propellers pose a threat to the more vulnerable (sensitive) parts of a turtle, and nests can be crushed by cars or by foot traffic on the beach. Another man-made threat to sea turtles is the fishing industry. The huge shrimping nets cast from the sides of ships can trap and drown sea turtles.
Nowadays, U.S. fishers are supposed to use nets, called Turtle Excluder Devices or TEDs, that allow a captured turtle to escape but unfortunately not everyone complies. Poaching also threatens the turtle population: Even though it is illegal to sell things made from sea turtles or their eggs, poaching is still a problem in places where the laws are not strictly enforced.
While humans are the cause of many of the sea turtles' woes, we can also be their best allies. Groups like the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and the Sea Turtle Survival League have made it their mission to look out for sea turtles by educating the public and by tracking the migration of the marine reptiles. Their efforts, along with those of research groups at universities worldwide, have helped us to understand more about sea turtles and their habits. In addition to research and public awareness, these groups also take in and rehabilitate injured or sick sea turtles. When a sick sea turtle comes in, the staff of organizations like the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in North Carolina will diagnose and treat what ails the turtle and rehabilitate it so it maybe released back to the ocean. While the turtle is being cared for, researchers are able to place tracking devices on the turtle so that they may study their habits. Turtle tracking also takes place during the nesting season, as researchers track the fertility rate of different species. Often, turtle tracking involves the use of a satellite transmitter that will allow people to see where the turtles are without interfering with them.
A rare 5-year-old female Kemp's Ridley Atlantic sea turtle looks toward the ocean as Allen McDowell, an aquarist with Disney's Living Seas Animal Care Center, carries it toward the surf at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2004. (Photo: N-J/Brian Myrick)
You don't have to be a marine biologist in order to help sea turtles. If you live near the beach, make sure that you dim your lights during nesting season-beginning as early as February or March and continuing into September-so that hatchlings aren't distracted, and make sure that you pay attention to where you walk and play so you don't disturb nests. If you do come across a sea turtle nest or a sea turtle, contact your local beach authority to let them know. In the United States, it is illegal to mess with a sea turtle or its nest, so stay clear! Beach cleanups are a great way of helping out, and you're helping out more than just the turtles when you do it.
So, you don't live close to the beach? You can still be involved in your community's nature conservation efforts. Pollution from rivers and streams eventually makes its way to the oceans, where sea turtles and other wildlife may be harmed by it. Encourage your friends not to litter or pollute. Another way you can show your support for sea turtles is by adopting a sea turtle. Several organizations that rescue and track sea turtles have programs that allow you to adopt a turtle. The money you spend on the adoption will allow researchers to continue their efforts, and they will often keep you in the loop when it comes to your turtle and their research. You can also help by not buying products made from sea turtles, and reporting to the authorities those who sell such products. If you're a seafood lover, you can urge your folks to be conscious consumers by buying products that are certified to be turtle safe – that information can be provided by the manager of your local fishery or supermarket, or found on the packaging labels of mass-produced products.
The best thing you can do is to educate yourself about these beautiful creatures before they are lost forever, and share this knowledge with others.
Turtle watches a lesson in patience
There wasn’t a turtle flipper in sight for about 20 people this week who filed back into their cars after about a three-hour wait.
Explore sea turtles with these activities using the Daytona Beach News-Journal...
1. Search the Daytona Beach News-Journal for articles, columns, letters to the editor ,and editorials about the plight of sea turtles. Using this information, write a letter to the editor about how you think the situation should be handled. Share your editorial with classmates or a family member, or submit them to nieworld.com for possible publication. LA.A.1.3, LA.A.2.3, LA.B.1.3, LA.B.2.3, SC.G.2.3
2. Use the Daytona Beach News-Journal to find an organization that rallies for sea turtle safety. Create a list of questions you'd like to ask at an interview, and invite a representative of the organization to the class for a mini press conference. LA.A.1.3, LA.B.2.3, LA.C.1.3
3. Use the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Internet to research sea turtle populations for the past 15 years. Be sure to specify what species you are tracking! Chart and graph the population for the 15-year time span. Are there any trends on the graph? Based on what you've read, how can you account for fluctuations of the population? LA.A.1.3, LA.A.2.3, MA.A.1.3, MA.A.4.3, MA.B.1.3, MA.B.3.3, MA.D.1.3, MA.E.1.3, MA.E.3.3, SC.D.1.3, SC.D.2.3, SC.G.1.3, SC.G.2.3, SC.H.1.3, SS.B.1.3, SS.B.2.3
4. Cartoonists share their thoughts with audiences through their art. The messages are often simple, yet convey in a short moment how the cartoon artist feels. Use the News-Journal to find editorial cartoons you like. Then draw an editorial cartoon about sea turtle safety and share it with your classmates. LA.A.2.3, VA.A.1.3, VA.B.1.3, VA.E.1.3
5. Search the Daytona Beach News-Journal for stories about other endangered or threatened animals in your community and choose one animal that interests you. What poses the greatest threat to the animal you chose, and what can you do to help it? Organize your information on a poster and share it with your classmates, the school's ECO club, or even the agriculture classes. LA.A.1.3, LA.A.2.3, SC.G.2.3, SS.B.1.3, SS.C.2.3, VA.A.1.3
Interested in knowing more about sea turtles? Check out these Web sites!
Learn about the Carrs and their efforts to educate people about sea turtles at DEP Kids Page at http://www.dep.state.fl.us/secretary/kids/pioneers/a_carr.htm.
Watch video clips of an actual sea turtle's nest and check out how fast those little guys run for the water at Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Web site, http://www.floridamarine.org/.
Read about a SCUBA diver's experience of swimming with baby sea turtles that have been released into the ocean at http://www.thelivingsea.com/Adventures/bornfree.php.
Sea Turtle specialist Karen Walby talks about what it's like to work with sea turtles at the Miami-Dade County Kids Web site http://kids.miamidade.gov/.
Learn more about sea turtle migration tracking through this great site http://www.cccturtle.org/sat1.htm
Make a "turtle" sundae! Learn how at http://www.turtles.org/sundae.htm.
Published October 5, 2004