Homeward Bound… the Cyclical Journey of the Green Sea Turtle
Once upon a time along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, there was a man on a boat. The man was traveling to Tortuguero to pick up supplies when it began to storm. He didn’t want to turn back, but feared capsizing closer to shore. Nearing wit’s end, he saw a green sea turtle breach the choppy water beside him. The man knew exactly where it was headed and cleverly attached the supply list to the animal’s shell. The turtle delivered the letter to its nesting grounds in Tortuguero, and the man’s son sent the goods the very next day… or so one version of the local folktale goes.
Though residents know better than to disturb an endangered animal on its way to nest these days, the tale illustrates the predictability of a green turtle’s path. After traveling for thousands of miles through the ocean, these animals return back to the very same beach upon which they were born, allowing researchers – and shipmen – to predict their route with record precision.
A recent study at the University of North Carolina indicates that turtles may be born with internal regional maps imprinted into their brains. This means that if turtles were to die out in one area, they could not be replaced because relocated turtles would be completely lost. Another theory is that turtles memorize every last detail of the environment – down to the colors, textures and chemical compounds – in order to create their own mental map. Other scientists believe turtles perceive and interpret subtle differences in the Earth’s magnetic field and use them for navigation, similar to hammerhead sharks. Indigenous legend tells of a turtle statue deep within Tortuguero Hill, a regional landmark and extinct volcano, that lures the turtles back each year.
Intricacies of this reptile’s reproduction cycle were not explored until the 1950s, thanks to the efforts of Floridian Dr. Archie Carr – the most important figure in Costa Rican turtle conservation. The zoologist realized the vital importance of understanding turtle migration patterns in order to save them.
Long before satellite telemetry, Carr developed systems to track their trajectories and movements. He pushed for the creation of Tortuguero National Park in 1975, and headed some of the most important research and turtle tagging studies performed there. His book The Windward Road inspired the creation of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (now the Sea Turtle Conservancy).
Turtles have long been global symbols of patience, wisdom and longevity throughout human history. Many argue that their health and wellbeing reflect the overall status of the ocean and the planet; if the sea turtles are in trouble – so are we.
[To donate to the cause, visit www.conserveturtles.org. It costs only $25 to adopt a turtle, a donation that goes a long way in satellite tracking and research expenses. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is also committed to rescuing marine victims of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.]
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