Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Christmas Present

Among my favorite presents this year was a donation my parents made on my behalf to Caribbean Conservation Corporation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles using research, training, advocacy, education, and environmental protection.

On Christmas morning, I became the proud "mother" of Jamur, a 1,000-pound leatherback sea turtle who gave birth on Chiriqui Beach, Panama (on the Atlantic side), on May 29, 2007. I weigh a lot less than Jamur, but we're about the same length: 60 inches. CCC's caretakers tagged Jamur with a portable satellite in Panama, so now we can track the movements of this critically endangered turtle. As of last week, Jamur (yes, that's her in the photo!) was on her way to Spain. I'm a proud parent!

Leatherbacks are the world's largest, most striking sea turtles, traveling thousands of miles on only their powerful front flippers and an insatiable appetite for jellyfish. I didn't see any leatherbacks in Costa Rica, which isn't surprising: according to the Sea Turtle Conservation Project, the population of leatherbacks in and around the Pacific coastline has decreased by 95 percent since 1980.

Far more populous (but still endangered) are olive ridleys, the type of turtle we tracked at Playa Matapalo (photo from NOAA). The name comes from the color of the shell, or carapace, which can grow up to 30 inches. Like the other six remaining sea turtles, olive ridleys have been on earth far longer than we have: 150 million years. They precede the dinosaurs.

Still, we're doing our best to obliterate these ancient species by abusing the environment, neglecting people. Sea turtles are threatened by ocean pollution and seaside development. They drown in shrimp nets and in tuna and swordfish fisheries. Along the beaches where sea turtles lay their eggs live thousands of people who cannot make a living wage or get decent health care. The poor and marginalized take grown turtles for meat, shells and leather, to maintain their homes and health or to feed a drug habit. They remove sea turtle eggs from nests and sell them to willing buyers.

It was possible, perhaps likely, we would not see a baby olive ridley during our six-day stay at Playa Matapalo. So many things must go right to bring a baby turtle into the world. A female turtle must lay her eggs at the site where she was born. Already, she will have swum thousands of miles to return to her birth beach. She approaches shore in darkness, traveling slowly over the sand until finding a comfortable spot--the sand the correct consistency, the temperature right--to dig a nest several feet deep. She lays about 100 eggs, then covers them with sand before returning soundlessly to the sea.

The eggs incubate for 45 to 65 days before hatching, if the weather cooperates, if bacteria, ants or other insects do not discover them. The one- to one-and-a-half inch turtles flail, pushing sand out of their way to reach the top of the nest. Once they arrive, they swing their small fins toward the sea, moving faster than you might imagine, a good thing since predators as varied as birds, dogs, pigs and people stalk them along the way. Those that reach the water float for miles, dodging sea birds and fish. The males never return to shore, the sea forever their home. Females begin returning to lay eggs about two decades later. The cycle begins again.


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