Don’t laugh – I have often wished I could be a great, sea-going turtle, at least for a while.
ON THE TRAIL: Follow the race every day.
I imagine gliding along on with swift ocean currents, feeling the flow of warm and cool water against the soft areas around my flippers, glimpsing other ocean giants in their own realm, listening to humpback whales, with their melodious sounds, echoing from deep ocean cliffs and canyons. With luck, I might encounter the fastest fish in the ocean – sleek blue fin tuna, flashing silver as they power their way across entire ocean basins. I could find myself face to face with the biggest fish in the sea – a whale shark, as long as a bus with a mouth broader than a leatherback turtle is long, but with an appetite aimed only at tiny planktonic creatures. I might see mako and oceanic whitetip and even great white sharks, toothy animals that sometimes have young turtles for lunch, but as a grown-up sea turtle, I wouldn’t worry as most big, healthy turtles are not on their menu.
FOLLOW ALONG: Are you tracking the turtles on the map?
I dream of drifting far from any shore in the open sea at night, looking up at the starry sky above, then diving down more than two thousand feet, into the constellations of jellies and other creatures that illuminate the deep sea. Living light, bioluminescence, that eerie fire-fly kind of light, is common in the ocean, with about 90% of the animals in the deep sea able to produce flashes, sparkles or glowing images to signal one another, confuse predators, or lure curious individuals into a hungry maw.
As a leatherback, I would dive many times, day and night, to find and feast on my favorite jellies. It is dark in the deep sea below a thousand feet, even at high noon in clear ocean water, but sea turtles are adapted to be able to see in low light, and to focus clearly whether in the air or underwater.
With a body squished between two shells, limbs shaped like paddles, and a pointy tail at the aft end, it might seem an odd design for success, but sea turtles have prospered for hundreds of millions of years on this mostly blue planet. Turtles of all sorts must be doing something right to have withstood various cataclysmic events over the ages, including the fiery encounter with a comet that ended dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Turtles have thrived on the land, in lakes, rivers and streams and certainly in the ocean. But in a few centuries, and especially in the last few decades, the future of turtles everywhere has been teetering precariously on the edge of survival. Or not. The trouble is, turtles and turtle eggs taste good to human beings. Too many have been taken too fast, and in the ocean, millions more have been inadvertently killed in nets, trawls, on long- lines, and tangled in discarded fishing nets and gear. The places turtles live have also been damaged or lost, including critical nesting beaches for sea-going turtles.
Now we know, as our ancestors did not, that the ocean is fundamental to all life on Earth, including humankind. Long before the arrival of our species, turtles were significant players in ocean ecosystems. Their loss means that a part of our life support system will be missing, a permanent tear in the fabric of life that makes the world work . The good news is we don’t have to stand by while they disappear – on our watch. There are still some turtles in the sea, and there is still time to ensure that they – and we – can share a long and prosperous future. But the sooner we act, the better the chance that we can succeed. Now is the time to dive in – and help.
Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, explorer, author, lecturer, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Leader of the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, Founder of Deep Search Foundation and Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Council Chair for the Harte Research Institute, Council Chair for the Ocean in Google Earth and formerly served as Chief Scientist of NOAA. Author of 175 publications, leader of more than 100 expeditions, she serves on various corporate and non-profit boards. She has more than 100 national and international awards, a B.S. from Florida State University, M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke University, and 17 honorary doctorates. Her research concerns the ecology of marine ecosystems, development and use of ocean technologies, and marine conservation policies.