The ponderous sea turtle has a good reason not to hurry. Turtles are prehistoric animals whose ancestors evolved on land before returning to the ocean some 150 million years ago – having survived the extinction of dinosaurs, why rush? Today, sea turtles are swimming slowly and gracefully in almost every ocean basin throughout the world from the tropical to subtropical while some, like the giant Leatherback, cruise the cooler currents of southern Chile and northern Alaska.
The turtle’s fabled longevity – many live to 80 years or more – their ancient resilience and hard shells belie how fragile a creature they really are, and how sensitive their life cycle can be to changes in the environment. To begin with, only one in 1,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood, which is a slow process, taking upwards of 30 years to reach sexual maturity. Following this, turtles migrate thousands of kilometres from inshore feeding grounds back to the nesting beaches from which they hatched. Researchers think they may use the earth’s magnetic field to find direction whilst travelling, or possibly even the smell of the water they first dove into attracts them back. Some turtles cross the entire Pacific Ocean from Japan to Mexico as part of their migration. Now that’s a mission!
While turtles breed over several decades it is thought that they take breaks from two to seven years; some female turtles produce eggs four years after mating. Clutches (nests) average 100 eggs, which might sound like a lot, but birds pilfer many of the wee hatchlings during their scramble from the nest, down beach and into the drink. Round two is in the water as the hatchlings, which fit in the palm of your hand, are easy marks for aquatic hunters such as large sharks and whales (Tiger sharks and Orcas are able to bite through a turtle’s shell easily).
It’s not over yet for the gentle turtle. Throughout their lives they must withstand increasing pressures from natural predators and people as fish stocks are reduced from over fishing, they must dodge derelict fishing nets and marine debris (especially plastic and plastic bags that are mistaken for food such as jelly fish), and adapt to losing habitat due to human development.
No need to get swept away by the trouble though, thankfully turtles are endearing animals and there are scores of conservationists dedicated to ensuring their prosperity. You too, can get involved.
Australia is home to six of the seven species of marine turtles, and they are all listed as species of conservation concern by international and national organisations.
They are the Green, Flatback, Olive Ridley, Hawkesbill, Loggerhead and the Leatherback. In Australia, as in other parts of the world, sea turtles are integral to indigenous cultures.
For many island communities turtles and their eggs are an essential source of protein. Delicate, yet vital education is being carried out globally whereby groups are being regulated to harvest sustainably. Communities are also being encouraged to collaborate with researchers by recording tag numbers, taking down details such as the location, date, species, sex and size of the seen turtles.
There’s a good chance that whether you are in Australia or abroad there is some sort of turtle conservation programme in action. Let your fingers do the Googling to find out where and how you can help. Here are a few local starting points: Ningaloo, Cape York, Eco Beach, Sunshine Coast, Coral Coast. Internationally programmes exist from Cape Verde to Mexico, or Indonesia to the Solomon Islands.
Turtles are also significant to popular cultures worldwide, from China, where they are considered a creature full of wisdom, to Australia where Aboriginal stories tell of their creation.
One Wiradjuri (central NSW) story goes that before there were animals there were only people. Two men, Budgial (turtle man) and Gunual (goanna man) were in love with a girl named Gugu (fish woman). Budgial represented common sense and love while Gunual represented strength, power and greed. Budgial loved Gugu so he brought her flowers and sweet fruits, he watched the sun go down with her as he listened to her and held her. One day, some people teased Gugu so she asked Budgial to defend her. But Budgial, kind as he was, ended up befriending them, which annoyed Gugu. She went to Gunual. Gunual bashed the teasers and brought back lots of food for Gugu to show her how strong and powerful he was. But he did not love her, because he felt that it was very weak to love. One day Gunual gave Gugu a spear but when she threw it she missed and it made Gunual very angry. Gugu ran away down to the river and back to Budgial, who held her and told her that everything would be all right. When Gunual found them together in the river he threatened to kill Budgial. Budgial put up two shields to defend himself from the spears that Gunual was throwing. Then Budgial turned himself into a turtle. This is how turtles became. When Gunual saw this he thought Budgial must be the devil so he ran back into the desert. Today the goanna lives far away from the water inland and is very strong and powerful while the turtle, if you see one, will swim away or go into it’s shell. And the girl, Gugu, who is the fish, lives in the water with the turtle.