On a tropical sandy beach, a baby turtle frees itself from its leathery egg. It has been about two months since its mother dragged herself ashore during a neap tide and laid her clutch of a hundred or so eggs. While she faced certain dangers while nesting and her unattended eggs were vulnerable to the predation of rats and large lizards, the most precarious period of a turtle’s life is right after hatching.
As soon as the couple-inch-long baby digs its way out from the soft sand, it begins a frantic race to the sea. It may not even be able to see the water, but it instinctively knows which way to go. A veritable gauntlet awaits it as it scurries along. Ghost crabs darting about at lighting fast speed, and frigate birds soaring above, can easily snatch up turtle hatchlings on the run. If near human habitation, then dogs, pigs, and people may take part in the plunder. And even if the baby successfully reaches the sea, it still is not out of the danger zone. In the water, here are large fishes, including sharks, anxious to gobble up as many bite-sized turtles as they can. No wonder that only one out of a thousand baby turtles survives!
But even surviving the terrors of the coastal region, the little turtle will not stop. It will just continue to swim away from shore. Swim, swim, and swim some more. Swim, swim, swim out to sea. It will swim away so effectively that as far as any person knows, it will disappear.
For the next few years, the young sea turtle will be “lost.” No one has seen a non-hatchling young Pacific turtle in the wild. In the Atlantic not too long ago, the mystery was finally solved when young sea turtles were found hanging out amidst the kelp and flotsam of the Sargassum Sea. But so far, no such young turtle haven has been discovered for the Pacific.
Eventually, when the one-in-a-thousand turtle has fully matured, it will return to its birth beach and the process of mating, laying eggs, hatching, and the babies running for their lives will be repeated all over again. But in the meantime, after those “lost years” the sea turtle may go through a wanderlust period. How far it wanders often depends on the species involved.
Five species have been found in the Eastern Pacific and all, at one time or another, have been reported in California’s offshore waters.
The most classic of sea turtles is the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas). Its common name is not on account of any outward coloration but is due to the green reserves of internal fat which are particularly prized by people who consume this species for food. The Eastern Pacific population that breeds off of southern Mexico and Costa Rica is so dark in its outer coloring that it is sometimes called the Black Sea Turtle. It is regularly found along the coast of Baja but has occasionally been seen offshore along Southern California—and very rarely, farther up the coast, as far as British Columbia and Alaska! A small population of Green Sea Turtles tends to hang out in the warm discharge waters of the power plant in San Diego Bay.
The Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) is somewhat similar in appearance to the Green but, as its common name implies, has a proportionately bigger head. It is in general bigger altogether, reaching an average of 300-400 pounds (verses the Green’s 120-200). They nest far from California, on the other side of the Pacific, on beaches of Japan. Some apparently ride the currents across the vast sea, often feeding on the pelagic red crabs (Pleuroncodes planipes) of offshore waters. A few have come into shore by the Channel Islands, with at least one vagrant reaching Washington.
The most common sea turtle of the Pacific is the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea). It nests in great numbers along the beaches of Mexico. Adults move farther out to sea than other species and they are quite omnivorous, posing a real challenge to the fishing industry in their efforts to not inadvertently catch turtles. It is a relatively small turtle, averaging 100 pounds or less.
This is a mere fraction of what the world’s largest turtle weighs. The Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) can reach eight feet in length and weigh in at over 1,000 pounds, even up to close to a ton! Some of these monsters nest on the beaches of Baja California, this probably being the northern limit of their nesting range. Its non-nesting range, however, is just about as huge as it is itself—virtually the entire Pacific Ocean, even up to Alaska. It again tends to challenge fisheries, as it has a propensity for getting tangled in drift nets and snagged by longlines.
All of these turtles are considered to be at risk according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. For many years—centuries really—their eggs and flesh have been harvested as food. In more recent times, discarded floating objects, such as plastic bags, have taken a large toll on their numbers when consumed by turtles, evidently mistaking them for the jellyfish and other transparent and translucent plankton they normally eat. These and other factors have put the very survival of sea turtles at risk.
The Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochyls inbricata), the fifth of the Eastern Pacific’s turtles, is at extreme risk of survival. The reason for its decline, however, is not so much its food value but the value of its shell.
The upper shell (technically, the carapace) of the Hawksbill Turtle is the source of semi-transparent and beautifully colored tortoise shell. Since ancient times, tortoise shell has been used for both decorative and utilitarian purposes. The ancient Romans crafted furniture overlaid with tortoise shell veneer, and in the Orient, exquisite jewelry and combs were made from tortoise shell. The demand for tortoise shell was so great at times that thousands of pounds were exported from various regions annually, year after year. Plastic, the bane of other turtles when eaten, has proved to be a real lifesaver to the Hawksbill. Now much of what had previously been made out of tortoise shell can be manufactured from plastic, to the extent that many of the imitations are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Many international trade restrictions prohibit the exporting and importing of tortoise shell or any product derived from the Hawksbill Turtle. These restrictions have probably kept this species from total extinction, but it still remains rare, probably the rarest of the turtles found offshore from California.
In California turtles aren’t exactly common to begin with. But every once in a while, especially when an El Niño brings warm water northward, a diver or boater will have the great fortune of seeing a real live sea turtle! Why, an Olive Ridley even came ashore to sun itself on the beach of Tomales Bay not that long ago. These are exciting encounters indeed, but not as historic as one might imagine.
That is, unless a person sees a small turtle, larger than a hatchling but still obviously quite young. Then such a sighting would represent an important clue into those mysterious “lost” years of a sea turtle’s life.