Why Defend Turtles

If you’ve ever been snorkeling, SCUBA diving or perhaps even gazing at the ocean from land, you’ve probably seen a sea turtle and looked on admiringly at its size, grace and peaceful demeanor. Sea turtles are some of the oldest living creatures, they are one of the few species so ancient that they watched the dinosaurs evolve and become extinct. There are seven species of sea turtles in the world including green, flatback, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley and olive ridley. Four of these species have been identified as "endangered" or "critically endangered,” and another two are classed as "vulnerable,” by the IUCN Red List of Endangered species.

One of the reasons sea turtle populations are slow to rebound is they take several decades for adults to reach sexual maturity in order to reproduce. Although sea turtles usually lay about 100 eggs at a time, on average, only one egg from each nest will survive to adulthood.

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This series of images shows a Sea Shepherd volunteer assisting the process of going from an egg to hatchling
(Click to enlarge)

While many of the things that endanger turtle hatchlings are natural, such as predators including sharks, raccoons, foxes, and seagulls, humans now pose a major threat to sea turtle survival. Turtles often fall victim to fishing bycatch due to imprecise fishing methods. Long-lines, driftnets, marine debris and abandoned fishing nets are all recurring causes of accidental sea turtle death. In addition to having to contend with predators and pollution, there is a black-market demand for tortoiseshell for both decorative and supposed health benefits. And if that’s not enough, turtle meat and eggs are regularly consumed by some cultures as food, and even considered a delicacy. Sea turtles are also vulnerable to pollution and disease because they spend a portion of their lives at the surface.

img-0579-400wSea turtles play key roles in two ecosystems that are important to our survival, as well as theirs: oceans and beaches/dunes. In the oceans, sea turtles are one of very few creatures that consume sea grass from the sea floor. Sea turtles act as grazing animals that cut the grass short and help maintain the health of the sea grass beds, which need to readily groomed. Sea grass beds provide breeding and developmental grounds for numerous species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Without sea grass beds, many marine species would be lost, as would the lower levels of the food chain. The reactions could result in many more marine species eventually becoming endangered or extinct as well.

Beaches and dunes form a fragile ecosystem that depends on vegetation to protect against erosion. Eggs and hatchlings that fail to make it into the ocean are nutrient sources for dune vegetation. Dune vegetation is able to grow and become stronger with the presence of nutrients from sea turtle eggs, unhatched nests, eggs and trapped hatchlings. As the dune vegetation grows stronger and healthier, the health of the entire beach/dune ecosystem becomes better. Stronger vegetation and root systems help to hold the sand in the dunes and help protect the beach from erosion.

Sea Turtle Species

turtle-green-sea-turtle-105wGreen sea turtle - The green sea turtle is large and weighty with a wide, smooth carapace (shell), and named for the greenish color of its skin. They inhabit tropical and subtropical coastal waters around the world. There are two types of green turtles, including the Atlantic green turtle, normally found off the shores of Europe and North America, and the Eastern Pacific green turtle, which has been found in coastal waters from Alaska to Chile.

turtle-hawksbill-sea-turtle-105wHawksbill sea turtle - Hawksbills get their name from their tapered heads, which end in a sharp point resembling a bird's beak. Their strikingly colored carapace is serrated and has overlapping scutes (thick bony plates). Hawksbill turtles are found throughout the tropical waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. They avoid deep waters, preferring coastlines where sponges are abundant and sandy nesting sites are within reach.

turtle-loggerhead-sea-turtle-105wLoggerhead sea turtle - Loggerhead turtles are the most abundant of all the marine turtle species in U.S. waters. Their range encompasses all but the most frigid waters of the world's oceans. They seem to prefer coastal habitats, but often frequent inland water bodies and will travel hundreds of miles out to sea. The largest of all hard-shelled turtles (leatherbacks are the largest but have soft shells), loggerheads have massive heads, strong jaws, and a reddish-brown shell, or carapace.

turtle-flatback-sea-turtle-105wFlatback sea turtle – Flatbacks are endemic to the continental shelf of Australia. Its common name comes from its flattened carapace compared to other sea turtles. Females lay fewer eggs than other species, but they are much larger in size. Thus, the hatchlings are larger in size, making them more difficult to be eaten by predators.

turtle-leatherback-sea-turtle-105wLeatherback sea turtle – Largest of the sea turtles, it is also one of the longest-living marine species that is sadly, greatest at risk for extinction. Leatherback turtles roam tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They are found as far north as the British Isles to as far south as Australia. The turtles grow as large as nine feet long, six feet wide and can weigh over 1,000 pounds. Leatherback turtles are covered in a namesake rubbery shell and can dive thousands of feet in search of soft-bodied prey like jellyfish.

turtle-kemps-ridley-sea-turtle-105wKemp’s ridley sea turtle – The Kemp’s ridley turtle is the world’s most endangered sea turtle, with a worldwide female nesting population roughly estimated at just 1,000 individuals. Found primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, but also as far north as Nova Scotia, Kemp’s ridleys are among the smallest sea turtles. Their upper shell, or carapace, is a greenish-grey color, and their bellies are off-white to yellowish. Unlike other sea turtles, female Kemp's ridley turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in the daylight hours, which makes hatchlings even more susceptible to predators.

turtle-olive-ridley-sea-turtle-105wOlive ridley sea turtle - Olive ridleys get their name from the coloring of their heart-shaped shell, which starts out gray but becomes olive green once the turtles are adults. They have one to two visible claws on each of their paddle-like flippers. The olive ridley turtle is named for the generally greenish color of its skin and shell, or carapace. It is closely related to the Kemp’s ridley, with the primary distinction being that olive ridleys are found only in warmer waters, including the southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Olive and Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest of the sea turtles.

Sea Shepherd Sea Turtle History

Whether a full-on sea turtle campaign, or through inadvertent efforts on other campaigns, Sea Shepherd has been defending sea turtles and their habitats for multiple decades. On any campaign at sea, Sea Shepherd searches and collects illegal longlines and discarded fishing nets, amongst other marine debris, to ensure that sea turtles do not wind up entangled or worse. Sea Shepherd has also organized international beach cleanups to clear coastlines of garbage that pollutes sea turtle habitat.

To show their support for the plight of sea turtles and those who risk their lives to defend them, Sea Shepherd added a new ship to their fleet, the M/Y Jairo Mora Sandoval, named after the 26-year-old Costa Rican activist brutally murdered in Costa Rica in May 2013 for protecting sea turtles from poachers. Captain Paul Watson vowed that Sandoval’s name and heroism would not be forgotten. Thus, the Jairo Mora Sandoval is involved in anti-poaching operations off the coast of West Africa under the direction of the Senegalese government.

During the Summer of 2001, Sea Shepherd crewmembers camped out on the remote north shore beaches of Tobago, of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, to guard the leatherback sea turtles from poachers. Not a single turtle was killed while Sea Shepherd was standing guard during this campaign. Crewmembers observed the turtles crawling ashore to nest, laying their eggs, and returning safely back to the sea.

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