What about sea turtles instills a power of captivation over so many people -- to the point even, that conservationists would sacrifice their life to save them? Why should we be alarmed that this ancient species is disappearing from the globe?
Nestling into my airplane seat I considered whether I was more excited to attend my first conference or to escape the daunting New England winter. Motive aside, I prepared for the departure to New Orleans. Poster tube in hand, I filtered through the airport aisles and made my way to the taxi stand. I was attending the 34th International Sea Turtle Symposium to present my data on green sea turtle tracking and to connect with other sea turtle researchers. Away from the conference headquarters, I realized my skill for locating other turtle enthusiasts amongst the crowded city streets. My exploration transformed into a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ challenge, but instead of red & white caps, I combed the crowd for sea turtle printed T-shirts, flip-flops and the dead-give-away sea turtle tattoo. To my surprise, the majority of attendees weren’t actually biologists, they were sea turtle conservators who had dedicated their lives to late night beach patrols. In fact, the conference acknowledged and celebrated the life of 26-year-old sea turtle conservationist, Jairo Mora Sandoval, who was murdered months earlier after confronting sea turtle poachers on a beach in Costa Rica.
So what about sea turtles instills this power of captivation over so many people – to the point even, that conservationists like Mora, would sacrifice his life to save them? Why should we be alarmed that this ancient species is disappearing from the globe?
The ocean saw its first “sea turtle” well over 100 million years ago, an incredibly long time, considering dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago and our hominid relatives took their first bipedal steps only 4 million years ago. Ancient mythology and folklore have respected sea turtles for their peaceful demeanors, weathered skin, and odyssey-like voyages. The Iroquois continue to celebrate the sea turtle’s role in the creation of earth: after Ata-en-sic, the Sky Woman, fell from the clouds into the sea below, the animals that lived above in the great cloud sea feared her demise. They decided only oeh-da (earth) could hold the Sky Woman but earth was too heavy and continued sinking into the sea. Hah-nu-nah, the turtle, with his large shell volunteered to support earth for the Sky Woman. Now, when the earth-bearing turtle moves, the sea becomes choppy and the earth trembles. In ancient Hinduism exists a similar tale: four elephants stand on top of a great turtle shell to support earth. Originating from oral tradition, cultures around the world revere sea turtles and consider them symbolic.
Those fortunate enough to witness a several hundred pound sea turtle lay her eggs experience the same visceral response – a feeling of awe in response to the turtles intense migration over hundreds to thousands of miles, returning to the same beach she was hatched at 25 to 50 years prior. Using the earth’s magnetic field, a sea turtle is able to navigate through the vast ocean with astonishing precision. She lays and buries dozens of eggs within a small chamber beneath the sand. In the following decades, only a handful of her offspring are expected to survive and return to the same coastline to carry-on this ancient ritual. The life of a sea turtle is a life of journeys.