Hello there guys!
I hope everyone had an amazing new year with the people you care about, I certainly had an amazing night with my island family <3 . It’s time to talk about sea turtles, an animal which I know everyone loves- whether you’ve been lucky enough to meet one in the wild, or not but know a little about them. They are a truly charismatic animal which shares this blue planet with us.
There are seven species of sea turtles in the ocean: the Green, Olive Ridley, Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Kemps Ridley, and Flatback. Here on Koh Tao we have the Green, Leatherback and Hawksbill, however most commonly seen in the famous green! They are air breathers even though they live in the ocean for nearly 100% of their lives (with the exception of females who come to shore to lay their eggs in the sand) and can hold their breath for many hours, depending on the activity they are partaking in, for example a longer breath hold would be more likely while they are sleeping than when they are looking for food. Also, they have been around for an incredibly long time, in fact sea turtles have been around since before the dinosaurs and yet were able to survive the extinction event- showing their ability to adapt to changes.
Turtles play quite a variety of roles in our oceans ecosystem depending on the turtle type. They can assist in maintaining marine flora, for example by the consumption of algae which can compete with corals, as well as maintaining sea grass beds. Without maintenance by turtles (and manatees) the grass beds struggle to expand and develop as good habitats for all the other marine creatures which use them as habitat and mating grounds. Sea grass beds have been in decline, and it is suggested that this decline could be linked with the decrease in sea turtles who feed on them. Turtles also assist in nutrient cycling and controlling sponge distribution, among many other important roles- which link in perfectly with the oceans food web.
Unfortunately as briefly mentioned above, sea turtles numbers are declining. All the species are endangered or threatened with extinction. This is due to anthropogenic causes, largely being plastic pollution, the industrialised fishing industry, coastal development and climate change. From an egg, turtles have about a 1/1,000 chance of surviving to a reproductive age. It’s pretty tough odds these little guys face!
"The way things are going, we are on our way to losing these beautiful and prehistoric creatures"
Plastic pollution is a huge problem globally because plastics never truly biodegrade- they simply break down into microplastics that enter the food chain. In the case of sea turtles, ingesting these microplastics is of course problematic if they eat consume enough, but also it is incredibly easy to confuse unbroken plastics for foods that turtles regularly eat, such as jellyfish, and colourful seaweeds. Consuming plastics can affect their buoyancy- which can inhibit them from diving down for food, and can also easily cause blockages in their digestive tracts which can unfortunately lead to starvation.
The fishing industry is also a massive contributor to turtle mortality. Many large scale fishing techniques these days are not targeting a specific species, and so other animals are often caught unintentionally. Sadly these accidental catches are not able to be rectified fast enough, and often can lead to death.
Coastal development affects turtles mostly during their first stages of life, including when mothers are looking to lay their nests. A female may deem a beach that she finds unsuitable due to human development, and may attempt to find another location for her eggs, this can cause undue stress. Another way is when turtles eggs have been laid on a beach with development. There can be accidental mortality of eggs from people unknowingly squashing them. The introduction of non native species to new areas also leads to additional egg mortality from dogs, cats, foxes and many more. Then of course there is light pollution, as hatchlings use moonlight to direct them to the ocean to begin their new lives- unfortunately unnatural light from human sources can interrupt this mission.
Then there is climate change, which is a tricky one... Unlike humans (who have our chromosomes determine our sex) turtles sexes are determined based on the temperature which they are incubated in. If eggs are in sands which are too warm then mostly females are born, while in sands that are too cold will bear more males. As you can imagine, climate change adds quite an interesting dimension to sea turtle survivability. If the temperature continues to rise there will be an increase in females and fewer males to fertilize them.
Luckily there is work being done around the world to assist in turtle survivability. Here at the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program (NHRCP), we have a ‘head start program’. This is a program we have begun with a governmental body of Thailand (The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources), where we are provided with sea turtle hatchlings. We keep them temporarily and grow them to a size of about 20-25cm along their carapaces (shells) since at this size they are stronger, more agile and much more efficient divers. So when we release them into the wild their chances of survival are greatly improved.
So what can you do?
Well! Of course you can support organisations that are helping sea turtles, like NHRCP. That could be with your time or in monetary donations. Otherwise though, it’s pretty much the usual things to do when it comes to most ocean-related issues;
• Work towards heavily reducing, or even better cutting out seafood from your diet
• Please please take the small steps to reduce your plastic usage; Akua has a fantastic blog post about how you can achieve this!
• Support parties in your government that take the environment seriously, any party who doesn’t can’t honestly say they are working for our future anyhow!
• When travelling, try to only support eco tourism certified companies
• When snorkelling, observe and take pictures, but do not touch the turtles (or any animal for that matter)
• When snorkelling, if you see rubbish in the water please remove it, you never know what turtle you might save!
Video | Akua Founder, Marine Scientist, Surfer & Diver Zoe Strapp snorkelling Indonesias vibrant waters with a local Green Sea Turtle.
The way things are going, we are on our way to losing these beautiful and prehistoric creatures, we’ve gotta band together to make our voices heard about environmental problems, and act in accordance with our values. I know we can all do it together! See you next month! <3