Do we need sea turtles?
In 1996, I was on the first team to attach a satellite transmitter to the back of a sea turtle and track her migration across an entire ocean. Her name was Adelita, after the daughter of a local fisherman. Over the next 368 days, she swam some 7,000 miles from Mexico to Japan, the country where she was born. Adelita swam her way into computers and newspapers and, soon, into the minds and hearts of millions who followed her epic journey.
Earlier this month, the Great Turtle Race II expanded on Adelita's journey. Eleven leatherback turtles navigated the high seas. Thousands of turtle fans monitored their progress online. The race winner and first to cross the International Dateline, traveling almost 4,000 miles, was Saphira, our Santa Cruz hometown favorite.
In a recent New York Times blog covering the race, journalist Andy Revkin dared pose the question, "Do we need sea turtles?" The responses have been passionate and thought-provoking, but inconclusive.
For me, Revkin's query misses the point, begging more important and more provocative questions: Do we need all-you-can-eat shrimp dinners and swordfish steaks that kill so much ocean wildlife? Are endangered sea turtles worth saving at the cost of a few luxury items? How much do we really need?
As a scientist, I understand we know little about the ecological roles of sea turtles. The turtle populations we study are a mere tenth of their former abundance. Stories from before the age of synthetic nets and outboard motors read like science fiction: clippers cutting through seas full of floating sea turtles, fish being raked into boats and psychedelic reefs exploding with life.
In ways we will never fully appreciate, each lost species weakens us all, but the loss of sea turtles goes far deeper than the loss of a single thread in the fabric of life.
For the Seri Indians of Mexico's Sonoran coast, sea turtles are life itself. To them, leatherback turtles are ancestors. They are at the heart of their songs, stories, dances, ceremonies and, lately, ocean conservation efforts. An ocean away, the Kei Islanders believe that their ancestors gave them the leatherback as a source of food to be hunted by hand from open boats. Always to be shared, but never sold. In Costa Rica, where leatherback turtle numbers have crashed hard, former egg poachers now protect turtles and lead ecotours -- a transformation bolstered in turtle hotspots around the world by Ocean Conservancy's SEE Turtles project.
On a recent flight, soaring high above the ocean, my row-mates described personal connections to sea turtles. "They changed our lives," they said. "Swimming with them, seeing them, on their terms, was the best thing we've ever done."
Thinking of them and pondering the question, "Do we need sea turtles?" I can only imagine the look on the faces of the Seri and the Kei Islanders and the millions of kids tracking turtles online, of a Mexican girl named Adelita, those Costa Rican turtle guides and a few strangers I met on a plane. Each would smile gently, shake their heads and laugh at the very question.
If you would like to ensure a world with sea turtles, visit oceanconservancy.org or seeturtles.org to plan a turtle-friendly vacation to see them in the wild, or join the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup to gather trash that threatens turtles, and, while you are at it, join Ocean Conservancy and become an outspoken advocate for sea turtle protections.
Wallace J. Nichols is former senior research scientist at Ocean Conservancy and founder of the SEE Turtles conservation tourism project SEETurtles.org.
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