The Great Turtle Race

Earlier this year I blogged about the Great Turtle Race, a bit of fun organised by Conservation International to raise awareness to the bleak plight of the Leatherback Turtle. I got their Newsletter through today, and apparantly four turtles have gone missing. Hopefully they will reappear when they’re good and ready though!

With the excitement of The Great Turtle Race behind us, you’re probably wondering, “What are the turtles up to now?" Seven of the eleven turtles – Genevieve, Sundae, Turtleocity, Freedom, Purple Lightning, Billie, and Saphira – are well on their way to their feeding grounds off Peru and Chile. Unfortunately, two turtles, Stephanie Colburtle and Drexelina, haven’t transmitted any information on their locations for over 100 days. We are also concerned about two other race contenders, Windy and Champiro, who haven’t been heard from in a while. Leatherback turtles face many threats on their ocean journeys. Below are some possible explanations for the silence from Stephanie and her fellow racers: Did they die of old age? “It’s not likely that Stephanie died of old age,” says Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) researcher Jim Spotila, a turtle researcher who has been monitoring leatherbacks at Playa Grande, Costa Rica, for decades. Though it is difficult to tell a turtle’s exact age, scientists did not consider any of the racing turtles old, based on their nesting histories on Playa Grande. Did the leatherbacks’ harnesses fall off or were their satellite tags broken? If seaweed, slimy algae, or barnacles have covered the tag, information on the location of the turtle cannot be transmitted. “We’ve had tags go offline for as much as six months until the turtle moved to colder latitudes where the hitch-hiking critters presumably died and allowed the tag to restart,” notes TOPP researcher Scott Eckert. Also, the tags are attached to the turtles with specially designed harnesses. The harness can fall off if the turtle gets entangled in a fishing line or encounters an aggressive male turtle. Sometimes, missing turtles have been known to reappear on nesting beaches without their tag. Did commercial fishermen or shark-finners working off the Galapagos or Peru accidentally kill Stephanie, Windy, Drexelina, and Champiro? It’s possible that the turtles were caught by commercial fishermen. Though fishing policies are in place to protect the turtles in certain areas, illegal fishing does occur. Also, fishing by-catch in many areas, especially in the waters off Peru, is still unmonitored, so we don’t truly know how many turtles or other ocean creatures are incidentally caught in fishing gear. Did they eat too many plastic bags that looked like jellyfish? Leatherback turtles can mistake plastic bags floating in the water as their favorite food, jellyfish. Ingesting plastic can weaken or even kill them. Because they are then unable to digest their real food, they can starve, or they may choke on the plastic and drown. Reducing your plastic bag use is one simple way you can take action in your daily life to improve life for leatherback turtles. Take action today to reduce your plastic bag use and sign CI’s Plastic Bag Pledge now! It’s difficult to track the mysterious lives of leatherback turtles. We can only speculate on what may have happened to Stephanie, Windy, Drexelina, and Champiro, but given all the things that could go wrong, we feel lucky that we’re still hearing from seven of the eleven Great Turtle Race leatherbacks. As a part of the global conservation community, you have a chance to make a real difference in the future of our planet. I hope you’ll take action today by taking the Plastic Bag Pledge to help secure a future for leatherback sea turtles. Sincerely, Vinnie Wishrad Director, Online Community and Membership Conservation International

My own Grand Turtle Derby will be on Friday the 28th September instead of the 23rd – I’ve been busy! More details tomorrow!

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