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Where Are the Sea Turtles?

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Conservation | Education | Volunteering | Reptiles | Turtles

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Staci

“Where are the sea turtles?”

That is one of those popular questions our guests ask several times a week, and I’m always happy to point them in the right direction! Two olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacae), Theo and Lou, reside in the Aquarium’s beautiful Tropical Pacific Gallery. Theo can often be seen cruising by our dive volunteers during the Tropical Reef Dive, while Lou can be frequently observed napping as you walk through the serene tropical tunnel. Helping out with the care of these magnificent creatures is one of the best parts of my aquarist volunteer days, so please read on to learn more about sea turtles!

Sea turtles are air-breathing reptiles that have adapted beautifully to the marine environment. There are seven species of sea turtle that can be found living in the tropical and subtropical waters throughout the world ocean. Believe it or not, the United States is fortunate enough to have six of those seven species inhabiting its waters! Those six species are: the green sea turtle, the leatherback, the loggerhead, the Kemp’s ridley, the hawksbill, and the olive ridley. As previously mentioned, the two sea turtles that call the Aquarium home are olive ridley sea turtles.

Physical Characteristics

Olive ridley sea turtles get their common name from their olive coloration as adults. They are the smallest species of sea turtle, usually weighing anywhere from 80 – 110 pounds when fully grown. Their carapace, or dorsal (upper) shell, can reach anywhere from two to just under three feet in length. Like all sea turtles, they have large front flippers for propelling themselves through the water while the rear flippers are used for steering. Because their blood can hold large quantities of oxygen, they can rest or sleep on the bottom for about two hours!

Diet and Feeding

Feeding our sea turtles is a little more challenging that you may think! Since they spend most of their time under the water, they don’t come when called like a dog or cat. Our sea turtles have been conditioned to come to their feeding station when a red rubber dog toy is placed in the water, either at the end of a pole or tied to the end of a rope. Since sea turtles have very powerful jaws, we use tongs to deliver their food instead of our bare hands. As the turtle approaches the toy and tries to take a bite, we move the toy at the last second and replace it with some tasty seafood! That doesn’t sound too hard, but when you have several larger fish in the same exhibit coming up to steal the turtle’s food, things can get exciting! Placing a net beneath the toy helps to keep the fish at bay while delivering the turtle his lunch. Out in the ocean, sea turtles eat a wide variety of food items including sea jellies, fish, shrimp, lobsters, crabs, and other crustaceans. Some eat algae, too! Our sea turtles are fed a varied diet of clam, shrimp, capelin, herring, mahi mahi, mackerel, sardines, and an occasional squid.

Threats and Conservation

Life for sea turtles out in the ocean is not easy! Unfortunately, almost all populations of sea turtle are either threatened or endangered. Sea turtle hatchlings are heavily preyed upon while making their way to the ocean by small land animals and birds. Once they reach the water, they can become food for fish, too. Though a there may be many turtles that hatch, very few actually make it to adulthood. Even adult turtles can fall prey to a hungry shark!

All the natural predators combined, however, cannot surpass the threat posed to sea turtles (and many other animals) by human beings. As the Aquarium’s Online Learning Center describes, “There are many ways in which humans affect sea turtle populations. Encroachment on nesting areas by commercial and residential development, placement of lights that confuse hatchlings trying to find the water, interference to nesting sites and egg-laying females, ghost nets and other dangerous debris, and boat-turtle collisions. In areas where the turtles have been plentiful, residents have traditionally harvested adults for meat and emptied the nests of eggs for subsistence and for sale. Thousands of turtles are killed yearly as bycatch by commercial fishing boats such as fish and shrimp trawlers and the long line fisheries. Newly developed turtle exclusion devices (TEDS) and circular fish hooks are effective in minimizing the accidental taking of turtles, but the fishing industry in general, with some exceptions, has been slow in adopting the new techniques.”

There are things each and every one of us can do to help ensure a successful future for sea turtles! Here are a few of my favorite suggestions:

Dispose of your trash in a proper waste receptacle. Sea turtles and many other marine animals mistakenly eat trash (such as plastic bags, candy wrappers, bottle caps, and cigarette butts) that can cause them illness and/or death.

Bring your own bags when you shop. The more we can reduce our use of plastic bags, the less animals will encounter them floating in the oceans.

If you come upon a nesting site, leave it alone! If you find yourself on an unfamiliar beach, known sea turtle nesting areas are usually (hopefully) clearly defined.

Encourage legislation to protect sea turtles and their habitat. A lot can be done by simply doing a little bit of research and educating yourself on the issues.

If you eat seafood, know where it comes from and how it’s caught. More and more seafood restaurants and vendors are purchasing seafood from sustainable sources. Doing your homework in this area can help to ensure that a variety marine life, as well as a sustainable supply of seafood, will be around for future generations to enjoy.

Well, that’s all for now! Hopefully you’ve learned a little more about sea turtles and ways we can all help protect them. If you’d like to learn more about sea turtles or many of the other animals that call the Pacific Ocean home, check out the Aquarium’s Online Learning Center or stop by for a visit!

Where Are the Sea Turtles?
Jen, one of the aquarists, feeding Theo. The dog toy at the end of the pole is used to let the turtle know it's feeding time, while a net is held in place to keep the fish from stealing the food.  | Staci Peters
Where Are the Sea Turtles?
Sometimes taking care of turtles is a group effort. Here our aquarists prepare to temporarily bring Lou out of the water for his annual veterinary exam. Even our turtles get annual physicals!  | Staci Peters

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