Baby Sea Turtles Are the Unsung Heroes of the Sea
What's tiny, wobbly and fighting to make it to the water? That's right, it's a baby sea turtle!
Possibly the cutest baby animals in the world, sea turtles capture the hearts of people from the second they are born. Sadly, only one in one thousand hatchlings makes it into adulthood. And the ones that do are constantly fighting for survival.
Follow the journey of baby sea turtles to learn more about this incredible endangered species, which has been around since dinosaurs ruled the Earth.
They Have a Perilous Journey to the Sea
The life of every sea turtle starts at a beach. At certain times of the year, different species come ashore to make a hole in the sand, lay their eggs and then go back into the water. Unlike most other animals, they never see their offspring nor do they help them in the first years of their life.
Instead, baby sea turtles come into the world together and dash to the sea with the rest of their nest. Sometimes, multiple nests hatch at the same time, making for a magnificent spectacle for anyone lucky enough to witness it.
But it's not as easy as going into the sea. Many hatchlings don't make it past the first hour of their life. David Godfrey, the executive director of Sea Turtle Conservancy, explains that it's because they're simply easy prey to air, land and sea predators. "Everything in the marine environment wants to eat them," he says.
As if in a scene depicting the D-Day landings, when they're in the sand, species like seabirds, crabs, raccoons and lizards swoop down for an easy feast. Then, when baby sea turtles go into the water, they face fish like barracuda and tarpons who are more than happy to get a large supply of bite-sized snacks.
How do some of them survive? Godfrey states that they have two passive defense mechanisms. First, "they don't emerge from their nest and enter the sea until it's nighttime, because they're less visible." They also hatch together in large numbers. This way, though some of them will inevitably get eaten, others have a chance to escape.
Those who make it out of the war zone alive usually hide in "floating mats of sargassum weed," according to Godfrey.
And this is just the beginning.
The Circle of a Sea Turtle's Life
After fighting for their lives as soon as they're born, baby sea turtles go on a hero's journey that sounds straight out of a Greek myth.
Godfrey describes the adventure in detail. "One hatchling is going to travel thousands and thousands and thousands of miles. It gets into the ocean on the east coast of Florida, for example, it swims out 50 miles and gets caught up in the floating sargassum of the Gulf Stream. [It then] floats to the far North Atlantic, over to Europe, down to Africa, and back to the Caribbean in a giant Atlantic gyre.
"It floats around like that for years, growing and growing and growing. And at some point, it becomes about the size of a Frisbee and it instinctively knows, 'you know what I'm done with this collegiate existence.' And they start looking for a place to live near the shore and take up a residency near some beautiful island."
The turtles stay in the developmental habitat and grow up there for another 20 years. Once they hit their late 20s or early 30s, they decide it's time to pick back up again and join an adult colony. Here, they're free to enjoy adulthood. That is, until their biological clock starts ticking.
"Thirty-five or 40 years after they first crawled down into the sea, they're triggered somehow to migrate back to the beach where they were born," Godfrey exclaims with not a small amount of awe in his voice. "They can find it. They know how to get there. They've never been there again, but they know how to find it and they reproduce."
After they've nested, the turtles — which by now could be as tall as nine feet long, if they're leatherbacks — go back into the water and return to their adult colony.
We agree with Godfrey when he claims that "it's a spectacular life history."
Sea Turtles Are Master Navigators
How can sea turtles know exactly where to go without star maps or GPS systems? They use the Earth's geomagnetic field. Yeah, these baby animals really are too cool for school.
"They actually have the ability to detect the magnetic field of the Earth, which has distinct characteristics depending on where you are," clarifies Godfrey.
He adds, "basically, they have a latitude and longitude plot in their brains that is established by the Earth's geomagnetic field, and they migrate using that."
Do we even need to explain why these beings are extremely precious?
How to Witness Baby Sea Turtles Hatching
Sorry, this is a trick section. To witness a sea turtle hatching responsibly, you'll just need to be at the beach at night when it happens. This usually means having a few days near a nesting spot and a whole lot of luck.
If your resort offers the chance to participate in a baby sea turtle release, we got some bad news for you.
Remember when we talked about the defense mechanisms turtles use? They were darkness and strength in numbers. What usually happens at hatchling releases is very different.
In order to make money from the hatching, resorts sometimes pick the babies up — interrupting them on their way to the sea — and put them in a tank. When tourists wake up, they're offered the chance to hold a hatchling and then release it. The rhetoric usually involves conservation, with claims that releasing the animals helps them. And if you get a cute picture for your social media, all the better.
But, as Godfrey eloquently (and maybe graphically) explains, "you're releasing one turtle or a couple during the day. Now the four or five fish out there are going to pick all of them off and none are going to make it. And then a little later, a few more go and [the fishes] pick all them up [as well].
"You're spoon-feeding the predatory fish."
A World Without Sea Turtles
Why should you care what happens or doesn't happen to sea turtles?
First of all, look at them. If you don't automatically want to protect these adorable creatures, then you've got no heart. Also, after learning how much they go through and their long and arduous journey, it's impossible not to be in awe of them.
But if you're one of those people who is always wondering what's in it for them, you'll still want to root for their conservation.
As a keystone species, some sea turtles are essential to the survival of their environment. The hawksbill turtle helps coral reefs stay healthy and diverse by eating sponges and algae that grow on coral. Reefs are known as the nurseries of the sea because they provide a habitat for many species that are important to the food chain. Plus, they help create a barrier against strong waves and storms.
Another way that they help us is by stabilizing sand dunes. The turtles that die before they hatch, and those that get eaten before they reach the sea provide an important source of nutrients for animals and plants on dunes. They're one of the few species that do that.
"The healthier the dunes are," Godfrey posits, "the more stable they are." And since dunes serve to absorb high tides, and prevent shore erosion and high tides, we definitely want them to be as stable as possible.
So if you have a Florida beach house, you can thank dunes — and sea turtles — for saving it.
And if you don't, you can still thank them for helping the environments from which much of our food comes.
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