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Guide to Urban Sea Turtle Watching

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Thursday, December 05, 2013


Guide to Urban Sea Turtle Watching
A Green Sea Turtle surfaces in the San Gabriel River.  | Hugh Ryono

Hints and anecdotes for viewing the sea turtles of the San Gabriel River.

The San Gabriel River is one of the main watersheds of the Los Angeles Basin. The waters of the river are unusually warm for about two and a half miles from the mouth of the river at Seal Beach to between the 2nd and 7th street crossings due to the electrical power plants that line the bank. This warm water is what makes the river attractive to the green sea turtles that frequent it. My wife Pam and I have been watching and recording field notes and images on these turtles since 2008 for the Aquarium of the Pacific and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The following are some hints and anecdotes for watching these urban sea turtles.

  • First and foremost all sea turtles in the US are protected by Federal Law under the Endangered Species Act and are not to be harmed or harassed.
  • The bike path that parallels the river allows access to the banks of the river. However remember that it is a bike path and should be treated like a city street. For your safety always look both ways before crossing the path and always view the turtles from areas that will not impede bikers.
  • We’ve seen sea turtles from the surf area at the mouth of the river at Seal Beach to beyond the 7th street bridge crossing near Cal State Long Beach so anywhere along the first 3 miles of the river has the potential for a turtle sighting.
  • The size of the turtles in the river range from dinner plate size to ones with nearly 4-foot long shells.
  • This is the Northern most colony of green sea turtles.
  • The warm water that is released from the power plants is monitored and treated before entering the river. It has created a favorable environment for these turtles in which to forage.
  • Although Olive Ridley and leatherback sea turtles are occasionally seen off the coast of LA/Orange County the only species of sea turtles recorded in the river have been green sea turtles.
  • Not all turtles in the river are sea turtles. We’ve also seen fresh water turtles in the river. An easy way to tell them apart is that fresh water turtles swim in a dog paddle like fashion while sea turtles swim more like sea lions using their long fore flippers for propulsion.
  • The sea turtles in the river stay underwater on average between 10 to 20 minutes while swimming. When they pop up to breathe you can sometimes see them “spout” water out of their nostrils. You can also hear them spout on a quiet day.
  • Although while active they surface every 10 to 20 minutes, a resting turtle can stay underwater for over an hour. Back when the Aquarium of the Pacific once took care of 4 green sea turtles I was always amazed how long they could sleep on the bottom of the exhibit.
  • There is a posted speed limit for boaters on the San Gabriel River of 5 mph. Although not specifically in place because of the turtles this helps protect them from being rammed or injured by propellers while in the river.
  • The best way to see these turtles is to be higher up on the river bank while wearing polarized sun glasses. This allows you to see them swimming just under the surface. Lower down on the bank you won’t see as far underwater.

To learn more about the research done on these urban sea turtles check out the Aquarium of the Pacific’s lecture archive on the Green Sea Turtles and the San Gabriel River.

To help in the research of these turtles check out the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Citizen Science Project.

Guide to Urban Sea Turtle Watching

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