Have you been fortunate enough to swim with sea turtles? If you haven’t I would suggest doing it soon! These beautiful creatures are listed as endangered…and mainly due to us.
How many different type of sea turtles are there? There are 7 species of sea turtles! They are the green turtle, Kemp’s Ridley, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, Olive Ridley, and flatback. Six are found in the waters surrounding the United States and one (the flatback) is found in the Western Indo-Pacific area. The Olive Ridley and Kemp’s Ridley are the smallest sea turtles and the Leatherback the biggest (they can grow up to 6 1/2 feet and 2,000lbs!)
Sea turtles are found mainly along the southeast United States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Hawaii. However, they have been known to nest in over 80 different countries! Look for them along tropical beaches in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. The Flatback sea turtle is the only sea turtle that breeds in Australia and can only be found from northern Australia to Papua New Guinea.
Females seek beaches throughout these locations to lay their eggs between late spring and early summer. The females dig a hole in the ground, lay between 75 to 200 eggs, and cover the hole back up with sand. The females than return to the ocean, leaving the eggs alone. The eggs incubate for about two months before they hatch and the young turtles dig themselves out of the hole. They generally hatch at night or early morning, using the moonlight to make their way to the ocean.
This trek is probably THE most dangerous of their life. Why? 1. Birds, mammals, and other predators seek out the young turtles for their prey. 2. The light pollution WE cause, confuses the turtles and draws them in the wrong direction away from the ocean. There are many organizations that posts signs near common turtle nesting sites for visitors to be aware and to call their helpline if they come upon a nest. Many great organizations like The Georgia Aquarium and the Sea Turtle Conservancy will bring equipment out to protect nesting sites and monitor them to make sure as many green sea turtle hatchlings make it out to the ocean.
Green sea turtles will only come on land to breed and lay their eggs. They spend the rest of their lives in the sea feeding on off-shore plant blooms and other small animal life. Green sea turtles can remain underwater for up to 7 hours! They are classified as air-breathing reptiles.
Sea turtles have become severely endangered due to overharvesting of their eggs, hunting of adults, being caught in fishing gear, and loss of nesting beach sites. Due to the increase in our population, beaches are becoming overcrowded. New development is also being placed in areas with beaches that had otherwise been free from the public attention. Females return every 3 to 4 years to lay their eggs at the exact same beach they did before. With increased beach-goers, this heightens the chance of the nests becoming disturbed. People will unknowingly walk down the beach and crush a nest, or knowingly happen upon a nest and start disturbing the unhatched eggs.
Fishing gear is the leading cause of sea turtle deaths, along with many other marine life. Green sea turtles are common bycatch and will perish due to becoming tangled in the nets and not being able to free themselves. For decades, fisherman would troll the bottom of the ocean and then just toss overboard any unfortunate animal that got caught up that they were not fishing for. Many others would dump their cargo nets overboard, leaving them to float around in the ocean for marine life to deal with. Tragic.
Lastly, TRASH! Sea turtles have been researched for their cause of death, and countless times their stomachs have been cut open to find all sorts of human debris. Items range from plastic straws, cigarette buds, string, and small bits of broken up plastic. Sea turtles mistake trash for jellyfish, and then can’t digest the trash or filter it out of their system. The trash will just build up in their stomachs until they die. In the water, the sea turtles cannot tell the difference between trash and the small food particles they eat.
Thankfully, conservation efforts are being made across the world. Individual states have passed laws to protect sea turtles, such as passing regulations on beachfront lighting. Nationally, sea turtles are legally protected in the United States and its waters under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA lists the hawksbill, leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley, and green turtle as endangered and the loggerhead as threatened. Under this law, it is illegal to harm, harass, or kill any sea turtles, hatchlings, or their eggs, and it is illegal to import, sell, or transport turtles or their products.
Jurisdiction of this law is split between the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the former in the water and the latter on land. Internationally, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) covers sea turtles under Appendix I, which protects them from international trade by all countries that have signed the treaty. Read further conservation efforts here.
What you can do:
- If you happen upon a green sea turtle nest, please call the local sea turtle organization or aquarium, or as far as the city parks department. They will know what to do and will most likely send some volunteers out to the site to put up protective measures.
- Watch your trash. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Try to reduce the use of one-time use plastics like straws. Throw trash in the proper containers. Cut up six-pack plastic can holders. Use biodegradable products as much as possible. DO NOT throw trash down storm drains. Storm drains lead directly to our waterfronts and oceans with no filtration!
- Support sea turtle conservation sites such as:
- Volunteer with local or oversea organizations to support sea turtle research or conservation efforts: visit your local aquarium or Go Overseas for other opportunities.
Green sea turtles are beautiful creatures, and, like all animals, they must be protected to keep their species alive and our oceans healthy.