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The Sea Turtle Conservancy Presents: The magnificent meanderings of Lightning McQueen

By Martin Leggett - 16 Apr 2012 12:5:58 GMT
The magnificent meanderings of Lightning McQueen

Sea turtle image via Shutterstock

The announcement that the Wildlife Conservation Society is to throw its considerable weight into the saving of endangered turtles and tortoises - taking over direct responsibility for helping conserve half the world's most threatened species - has bought the ongoing risks to turtles back into focus. With sea turtles dealing with hazards ranging from plastic pollution, to careless beach developments, to increasingly noisy and glaring shorelines, turtles need as many friends as possible.

And one of the oldest and best of those friends must be the Sea Turtle Conservancy - amongst the first marine conservation group setup anywhere in the world.

Inspired by the writings of legendary ecologist Dr. Archie Carr, the STC has done much to raise the profile of the hard-pressed seat-turtles, since it was founded in the 1950's. But while the new WCS initiative has focused on some of the rarest tortoises and turtles across the globe, the STC remains the champion for the marine giants of the tropics; the leatherbacks and loggerheads, the hawksbills and green turtles, which are to be found plying the waters of the Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific.

Track those turtles

The Sea Turtle Conservancy has a strong focus on field research, as well as conservation, and is one of the more technologically 'in-tune' of wildlife conservation groups. By enlisting the help of satellite technology - and shell-mounted transmitters - the STC is opening up a window onto the mysterious (albeit slow-moving) world of the sea turtle. It is also giving donors and members a chance track individual sea turtles, including the three-foot long female loggerhead of the title; Lightning McQueen.

Not that Ms McQueen is particularly fast-paced. At an average of trundling speed, since release, of 4 hours per mile, it might seem that Lightning McQueen would be easily outpaced by many a plodding land-locked tortoise. But loggerheads don't have a particular need for speed. Their thick hard shells are an excellent defense against predators (although that doesn't deter sharks from attempting an inquisitive chomp). And their prey is pretty slow too - corals, sponges, star-fish and other bottom-dwelling creatures they scoop up in their jaws.

Plastic bags confused for jelly fish

The real danger for loggerhead turtles like Lightning McQueen, sadly and predictably, comes from man. Fishing gear can become tangled around them and floating plastic bags can be swallowed. Because their breeding patterns are as slow as their paddling - with females only becoming sexually active when 17 years old, and even then only laying eggs only once every three years - they are very vulnerable to disruption to their breeding grounds.

It was to counter such threats to sea turtles that the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (as the STC was first known) was formed in 1959. Much of its early work focused on protecting the Caribbean green turtle, and the black volcanic sands of Costa Rica that form its breeding ground. The STC has continued to study and log the green turtles (as well as the soft-shelled leatherbacks) at Costa Rica's Tortuguero beach. Here it arranges a yearly Eco-Volunteer program, where the turtle-enthused can help observe and tag green turtles and leatherbacks, as they come onshore to nest.

Worries over Deepwater

The Sea Turtle Conservancy also engages in a whole raft of conservation measures, to complement the help it gives to Costa Rica's green turtles. As well a long-standing program of research, the STC pushes for restrictions in offshore oil drilling, especially since the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010. That accident lefts millions of barrels of dispersed oil drifting around the Gulf of Mexico, and following it the STC reported a big increase in the number of sea turtles stricken by health problems.

The conservation group has also sought to make sure beach-front developments plans keep turtles uppermost in mind, through its Free the Beach campaign. And it is in the process of establishing a marine protected area for Florida's turtles, the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge. Refuges such as these are important - recent research has shown that turtles seem to prefer to hang out in these relatively safe zones, where they are not threatened by fishermen's nets. 'Our global overview revealed that sea turtles appear in Marine Protected Areas far more than would be expected by chance,' said one of the paper's authors, Professor Brendan Godley from the University of Exeter.

Loggerhead Turtle

Loggerhead turtle image via Shutterstock

Over to you?

And it was in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge that Lightning McQueen started her tagged journey, nearly a year ago. Slow she may be, but she's now paddled her way all the way from Florida to the Bahamas, in a long meandering loop of 1,500 miles. So what can you do to help gentle denizens of the oceans, like Lightning? Stopping the use of plastic bags, and making sure all your plastics are recycled is a good start. Another winner for the world's turtles is to avoid the releasing of helium balloons. These often come down in the sea, where hapless turtles can mistake them for jellyfish.

And you could even adopt one of the many tagged turtles like Lightning McQueen. Watching their progress around the oceans of the world may be a little like watching paint dry - but at least you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that you're putting your cent's worth into making the sea-lanes safe for turtles worldwide.

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Topics: Turtles / Endangered Species