Thursday, May 12, 2011
About 6 miles away from the Aquarium of the Pacific on the east side of Long Beach runs an urban river with a very surprising wildlife colony. You’d expect to see them while on an exotic journey to Mexican or Hawaiian waters. Yet right under the noses of Southern Californian recreational cyclists riding the San Gabriel River bike path lives a colony of endangered green sea turtles!
It’s been nearly three years now since my wife Pam and I started participating in an informal Aquarium survey of the green sea turtles that have colonized the San Gabriel River. In that time we’ve gotten to know and appreciate the sea turtles of this urban river.
When the Aquarium of the Pacific first opened back in the late 90s there was an exhibit of olive Ridley’s and green sea turtles where the Shorebird Exhibit now sits. Along with taking care of the pinnipeds, one of my duties back in those early days was to help take care of the green sea turtles. We gave these turtles the nickname of “Greenies”. Along with feeding them, I would sometimes get in my wet suit and physically guide them to the shore for checkups and treatments. The ”Greenies” eventually left Long Beach for another zoological facility (we still have the olive Ridleys at the Aquarium). But who knew back then that just down the road a hidden colony of “greenies” were taking advantage of the warm water effluents of the power plants that supply the cities with electricity and were flourishing in a three mile stretch of the lower San Gabriel River. Green sea turtles are warm water critters so I thought it was kind of amazing that they found this little warm water niche amongst the cooler waters of the Southern California Coast. The first time that I found out that there were green sea turtle in the river was when an injured “greenie” was rescued from the river and taken to the Aquarium for treatment.
The sea turtles of the San Gabriel River vary in size from small ones with baseball size heads to very large critters with shells more than a yard long. They are not the easiest animals to spot in the river water. They only come up for a few seconds to breath and can stay hidden underwater in the murk of the river for tens of minutes. Yet, because of the days that Pam and I have spent monitoring these turtles we have sort of figured out their surfacing patterns which varies from the time of day, current patterns and the tide. Its kind of a gut level feeling thing. Since I am the photo documenter part of the team it helps to be able to anticipate when and where they’ll surface as I have only a very small window in which to photograph them. Pam is the data gatherer of our little two person sea turtle survey team keeping track of how many different turtles are spotted, their size and their surfacing patterns. She’s gotten to be quite an expert on these particular sea turtles.
One of the added benefits of hanging out along the river waiting for sea turtles to surface is that there is time to appreciate the other animals that call this river home. From Osprey dive bombing fish to coyotes using the river banks as a wildlife corridor the river is alive with a menagerie of critters. We’ve even seen sea lions swim miles up the river in search of prey.
The San Gabriel. An urban river teeming with wildlife treasures.
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