“The turtle’s teachings are so beautiful. So very special. It teaches us that everything you are, everything you need and everything you bring to the world is inside you, not external, and you carry it with you, and are not limited to a place, space or time.”     

— Eileen Anglin

 

 What are Sea Turtles?

Turtles are the reptiles of the sea. They have been around far longer than us humans have, roughly as far back as 240 million years ago. No one knows how they survived the massive dinosaur extinction. They are distinguished by their bony shell structures, consisting of a dorsal carapace (top shell) and a plastron (bottom shell) underneath the body. 

Although they have small brains, sea turtles are incredibly smart. They are known to use the earth’s magnetic fields to navigate thousands of miles across the planet. It is also known that the gender of a sea turtle is dependent on the temperature of the sand the egg is buried in. There is no other animal as turtley (totally) amazing as these awesome reptiles.

Green Turtle (photo by National Geographic).

 

Sea Turtle Identification

There are 7 species of sea turtles. They can be identified by 4 key physical characteristics:

  • Number of prefrontal scales (between eyes).
  • Jaw shape.
  • Number of claws on flippers.
  • Number/arrangement of scutes (plates) on the carapace.

When diving around Malaysia, you are most likely to encounter the following species:

 

Green Turtle (photo by Irina Bernard).

Green Turtle

Chelonia mydas

IUCN Red List Status: Endangered

Interesting Fact: Green turtles are the only herbivorous turtles.

Hawksbill (photo by Kaylyn Schreiber).

 

Hawksbill Turtle

Eretmochelys imbricata

Claws/Flipper: 2

IUCN Red List Status: Critically Endangered

Interesting Fact: Hawksbill turtles have a distinctive pointy jaw shape, which allows them to eat sponges from tight crevices.

Other living species of sea turtles include the following:

Kemp’s Ridley (photo from Marine Biology Conservation Society).

Kemp’s Ridley

Lepidochelys kempii

Claws/Flipper: 1 on front flippers, 2 on rear flippers

IUCN Red List Status: Critically Endangered

Interesting Fact: Can only be found on east coast of Mexico and U.S.

Olive Ridley (photo from World Wildlife Fund).

Olive Ridley

Lepidochelys olivacea

Claws/Flipper: 1 on front flippers, 2 on rear flippers

IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable

Interesting Fact: Olive Ridleys are the most abundant sea turtles, with a population of 800,000. Most turtles nest as individuals, but Kemp Ridley and Olive Ridley turtles group together offshore and exit the water in massive groups, known as arribadas.

Leatherback

Leatherback (photo from Wikipedia).

Dermochelys coriacea

Claws/Flipper: 0

IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable

Interesting Fact: Leatherbacks are the largest living turtle species. They are also the only soft-shelled turtles.

Loggerhead

Loggerhead (photo from Chesapeake Bay Program).

Caretta caretta 

Claws/Flipper: 2

IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable

Interesting Fact: Loggerheads are named for their large heads, which come in handy. Their jaws allow them to crush the shells of shellfish, which make up most of their diet.

Flatback

Flatback (photo from Marine Biology Conservation Society).

Natator depresses 

Claws/Flipper: 1

IUCN Red List Status: Data Deficient

Interesting Fact: Can only be found on north coast of Australia.

 

Sea Turtle Conservation Efforts

The best protection that can be offered to sea turtles is the conservation of natal beaches and their surroundings. Sea turtle hatcheries exist to prevent poaching of eggs and consumption by predators. Many hatcheries also tag sea turtles for research purposes.

Egg laying (photo by Irina Bernard).

 

We visited the hatchery on Selingan Island in Malaysian Borneo. Here, eggs are removed from the turtles’ nests immediately after laying and taken to a safe location nearby where they are reburied in a man made nest, complete with a mesh fence to keep out predators.

 

Brand new hatchling (photo by Irina Bernard).

Man made nests (photo by Irina Bernard).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the hatchery, the sand temperature may be controlled to determine gender and the eggs can be closely monitored. Once the turtles hatch (approximately 2 months after the eggs are laid), the hatchlings are brought to the beach and returned to the sea as soon as possible after birth.

 

Back to sea (photo by Irina Bernard).

 

Not all of the turtles released back into the sea will survive. The females who do, however will return back to their natal beach (the beach where they were born) to lay eggs when they have reached maturity, using their internal GPS. And thus the life cycle of the sea turtle begins again.