A Journey Through the Life of a Sea Turtle
Sea turtle shirts that support conservation
There's something magical about sea turtles. When you see a huge turtle flapping gracefully beneath the sea, or a tiny hatchling making its first dash toward the ocean, you'll be hooked for life. They've existed on earth for more than 100 million years, but in just the last one hundred years, 6 of the 7 species have become threatened with extinction. That's why we at Truly Wild are raising money to help conserve sea turtle populations and the nesting beaches they depend on with our line of sea turtle shirts.
The "Leatherback" and the "Hatchling" sea turtle shirts by Truly Wild. Shop sea turtle shirts.
A Journey Through the Life of a Sea Turtle
In my years as a wildlife photographer I've hung out with a lot sea turtles. Snorkeling with Green Turtles in the British Virgin Islands, watching Olive Ridley Turtles mating off the coast of Nicaragua, or witnessing baby Leatherback Turtle hatchlings in Costa Rica crawling to the sea for their first swim; each one is a precious memory for me.
A green sea turtle grazing on sea grass in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico
But the greatest honor I've had is to be able to shoot sea turtle conservation photos for organizations like SEE Turtles and Paso Pacifico. I've seen first hand the difference they're making. That's why we're donating $5 from each sea turtle t-shirt sold to SEE Turtles, and we're donating to Paso Pacifico with our Truly Wild fund for the second year running.
In honor of our new partnership with SEE Turtles, I thought I'd take you on a little journey through the life of a sea turtle. (all photos © Hal Brindley and Cristina Garcia.)
It starts with an egg
All sea turtle species start life as a roughly ping-pong ball-sized egg buried in the sand just above high tide on a beach. They share the nest with about 100 brothers and sisters.
Sea turtle egg shells after hatching.
But sea turtle eggs are a highly-valued food source for many animal species, including human poachers.
A village dog digging up a sea turtle nest in Costa Rica
So in order to protect hatchlings, conservationists in many parts of the wold excavate turtle nests and relocate them into protected hatcheries.
A sea turtle nest being excavated for relocation into a protected hatchery in Costa Rica.
A sea turtle hatchery in Costa Rica supported by SEE Turtles
Upon hatching, usually at night, they must dig their way to the surface of the sand and crawl to the sea. It is an incredible sight to see, a hoard of tiny floppy turtles charging with determination toward the ocean. They fearlessly crash head-first into the waves, tossing and turning, then pushing forward. You can get a sense of this phenomenon with a video we made for our site Travel For Wildlife. It shows green turtles emerging from a nest in Tulum, Mexico, just after sunset.
Hatchlings use the reflected light from the ocean to find their way. That's why it's so important to turn off all lights at night along nesting beaches, or else baby turtles may become disoriented and head inland.
Baby sea turtles in hatcheries are often excavated manually for counting, weighing and measuring before being released to the sea.
Leatherback turtle hatchlings in a bucket await measuring before release on the Atlantic Coast of Costa Rica
But this is a critical time in the life of any sea turtle. An incredible power of perception allows a baby sea turtle to remember the beach they were born upon, and return to it later in life to breed, sometimes more than 30 years later! Studies suggest that hatchlings detect a sort of magnetic signature of the region, which they can then use later in life to find the beach again. This is known as geomagnetic imprinting.
So when hatchery turtles are released, they are placed on the sand at the top of the beach and allowed to cross it on their own, then find their own way into the sea.
A Paso Pacifico junior ranger prepares to release an Olive Ridley sea turtle hatchling at the La Flor hatchery in Nicaragua.
This is the first big adventure in the life of any sea turtle, surviving the first crawl to the sea. They are vulnerable to many predators at this time.
An Olive Ridley turtle hatchling making it's first journey to the sea.
This adorable photo of two Olive Ridley hatchlings has definitely made the rounds on social media. But to be quite honest the bigger hatchling was simply walking over the other on its way to the ocean :)
I had the great honor of accompanying this Green Turtle hatchling into the ocean for his first swim while photographing a nesting beach in Nicaragua for Paso Pacifico.
He was the inspiration for my Hatchling tee.
Green Turtle hatchling taking his first swim in Nicaragua.
Once a hatchling has survived the race to the sea, they say goodbye to land and live a full-time life in the ocean. Now it's time to eat, grow, and see the world.
Sea turtles travel vast distances across the oceans. One leatherback turtle, tracked by satellite, migrated 12,744 miles from Indonesia to Oregon! Young sea turtles live their lives in the open ocean. But as sea turtles mature they may migrate long distances between temperate coastal feeding grounds and tropical coastal breeding grounds.
This Green Turtle has two hitchhikers (remoras) catching a ride on its back.
Sea Turtle Diet
Green Turtles start life as omnivores, eating a variety of plant and animal life. But as they get older (like the one in the photo below) they become herbivores, primarily eating sea grasses and algae.
I love this peaceful photo of a Green Turtle grazing on sea grass off the coast of Mexico. (That's why we made it available as a canvas print! )
The primary food of the giant Leatherback Turtle is jellyfish. Their favorite food is the lion's mane jellyfish (another amazing creature) along with moon jellies. This is one of the main reasons to avoid using plastic bags, because they end up in oceans and look like a jellyfish to sea turtles.
Hawksbill turtles are omnivores, but they're preferred food in many areas is sponges. Controlling sponge growth is an important ecological service that hawksbills provide for the health of coral reefs.
Depending on the species and the individual, it may take anywhere between 10 and 45 years for a sea turtle to become sexually mature! When it's time to mate, sea turtles head back toward their natal beaches. Off the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, hundreds of thousands of Olive Ridley sea turtles gather to mate and lay eggs.
A pair of Olive Ridley sea turtles mating off the coast of Nicaragua. You can see how important the claw on the flipper is for holding on!
Olive Ridley's come ashore in a mass nesting event called an Arribada (arrival), where tens of thousands may be seen in a single night. Unfortunately I missed my chance to see an arribada by just a few days on my last visit to Nicaragua :(
After mating, female turtles wait for the perfect night and then crawl out of the ocean and onto the beach, often the very same beach upon which they were born. They crawl up to the back edge of the beach, dragging their immense bodies with their powerful flippers and choose a spot to dig.
I was sitting in the dark on this wooden stairway in Mexico when I felt something bump into my foot. It was a sea turtle coming up to nest! I photographed her using only a red-light headlamp and wrote an article about it called How to Photograph Nesting Sea Turtles the Ethical Way.
They begin preparing the area with their powerful front flippers. Then, with their much smaller back flippers, they excavate a small hole about 2 feet deep (the bigger the species, the deeper the hole). Then they position their tail over the opening and begin laying eggs. Sea turtle nests average about 100 eggs. A Flatback sea turtle averages closer to 50 while a Hawksbill may lay over 200!
I've watched several sea turtles laying eggs while volunteering in Costa Rica, but never photographed it because it is unethical to disturb them with a flash during this important process. We only used dim red-lights to observe.
The same turtle as above, starting to excavate a nest on the dune and throwing sand at my lens while lightning flashes in the background. Again, photographed only with a red light head-lamp to avoid disturbing her.
On some nesting beaches they offer nesting tours where you may be able to ethically view this magical event. It is important not to approach a nesting sea turtle if you see one in the wild and please don't use flashes or flashlights because they will turn around and leave the beach if disturbed. The next best thing is to search for turtle crawls in the morning!
Cristina pointing out a fresh turtle crawl where a sea turtle had nested the previous night.
This is one of my favorite hobbies during nesting season, to search for these unmistakable tracks leading to the spot where a sea turtle laid her eggs. On protected beaches, volunteers use these tracks to locate nests and place the eggs in hatcheries, which brings us back to the beginning!
A Green Turtle returning to the ocean in Costa Rica.
A Dangerous Life
While adult sea turtles have few natural predators (occasionally large sharks or even a jaguar!) they still face many human threats.
Some die from eating plastics in the ocean. Others get caught in fishing nets.
Many sea turtles become entangled in fishing nets and drown (they must reach the surface to breathe.) Lucky for this Green Turtle, this net was placed by turtle conservation workers to survey turtles and he will be released in seconds.
Some turtles are killed accidentally by human activities...
I found this dead Leatherback Sea Turtle on a beach in Virginia.
She had clearly been chopped in half by a large ship's propeller. Her soft leathery back offers much less protection than the hard shell of other sea turtle species.
Some sea turtles are still hunted by humans for food. Others are hunted just for the beauty of their shell.
This stuffed Hawksbill Turtle was seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife for illegal wildlife trafficking.
The Hawksbill Turtle is critically endangered, partly due to the fact that it is still extensively hunted for its beautiful shell to make "tortoiseshell" jewelry and souvenirs. Even though the practice is now illegal worldwide, these products are still available in many countries.
Hawksbill turtle shell jewelry for sale in Nicaragua.
Cristina and I traveled to Nicaragua undercover to photograph illegal hawksbill turtle shell products for sale in markets across the country. If you're visiting Central America, be sure you read our article How To Identify and Avoid Sea Turtle Shell Souvenirs.
These photos were commissioned by SEE Turtles for their Too Rare to Wear campaign. (Please head over there and sign the pledge to never buy Hawksbill souvenirs!)
Sea Turtle Conservation
Sea turtles are magnificent animals that need our protection. Let's help keep them around for another 100 million years! Please help us support SEE Turtles amazing efforts to conserve sea turtles by buying a sea turtle shirt or by visiting SEE Turtles and donating to them directly.
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