Saving the Sea Turtles

By Lynn R. Parks

It isn't easy to raise a leatherback sea turtle. Of course, nature has been doing it for 100 million years, since dinosaurs walked the earth and millennia before humans made an appearance. But scientists, who at the start of the 21st century are trying to learn all they can about the ancient and mysterious creature to help prevent its extinction, have been unable to raise leatherback turtles in captivity. Until now. T. Todd Jones, a native of Seaford, is studying two leatherback turtles that he collected as hatchlings off a beach in the British Virgin Islands more than two years ago. A doctoral student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, Jones, 31, has devised methods to keep the turtles alive, despite the fact that they want to swim all the time and the fact that pretty much all they eat is jellyfish, another creature that's difficult to keep in captivity. "I love sea turtles," said Jones, whose grandmothers, Carolyn James and Francine Jones, still live in Seaford. "They are very charismatic animals, quite agile. We think of turtles on land as being slow and dull, but these turtles are very graceful in water." The front flippers of a leatherback turtle move in a figure 8 pattern when the turtles are swimming, Jones said, much the same way bird's wings move in flight. "These turtles virtually fly under water," he said. "They are very beautiful." But Jones' research is about more than studying a creature he finds beautiful – about more, even, than reversing that creature's path to extinction. In the end, it's about gathering information to present to people that will encourage them to save the health of the Earth's oceans. Leatherback turtles, like all other creatures, are suffering from a myriad of human-caused problems. Climate change. Pollution. Loss of habitat. "It is not a simple thing to do, to save the oceans and the sea turtles," Jones said. "But everything we do can make a difference. When we make a change about how we eat, or when we want to go to Blockbuster and it's only three and a half blocks away, and we decide to walk instead of drive – when we make that change, that is helping the sea turtle and everything else in the sea environment."

Trying to conserve a species
One of seven species of sea turtles, leatherbacks, so called because their shells are soft, are critically endangered (all seven species of sea turtles are threatened or endangered). There are fewer than 50,000 leatherbacks in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; scientists estimate that the Pacific population will be extinct by 2015. In the 1980s, there were more than 90,000 breeding leatherback females in the Pacific. Today, there are fewer than 3,000. Leatherbacks face what Jones calls a "double whammy." Stress caused by environmental problems mean that they don't reproduce as they historically have. Additionally, many are victims of bycatch: They die when they are caught up in fishermen's and shrimpers' nets and when they become entangled in fishing lines. "If we could start managing fisheries so there is no bycatch, there are hundreds of thousands of young leatherbacks out there, waiting to move into adulthood," Jones said. "The potential is out there for them to rebound." Jones hopes that the information he gathers from the two turtles in his lab will convince people to do what is necessary to protect the leatherbacks. "These turtles could go extinct in our lifetime," he said. "We are gathering the data necessary for us to conserve the species."

Jones collected his two turtles, both female, just two days after they hatched on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. He allowed the hatchlings to crawl on their natal sand and dip into their natal waters, so that when the day comes that they are released, they will be able to return there to lay their eggs. The two leatherbacks, now 2 years and 2 months old, are kept in 1,500-gallon tanks, 5 meters in diameter. The water is blue, like the ocean's water is blue, and there are windows in the tanks, so the turtles can see long distances, as they would in their native waters. The leatherbacks are tethered with soft harnesses, to keep them from running into the sides of the tank. "The tethers allow them to swim and to dive," Jones said. "They believe they are moving, when actually they are not. They don't know that they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing." For food, Jones came up with what he calls "squid Jell-o": a blend of squid, water and gelatin. The mixture sets up in a cookie sheet-like pan and then is cut into strips, which Jones dangles into the water. "We shake it like a jellyfish would move and the leatherbacks love it. They would eat it all day long." Leatherbacks, used to deep oceans, cannot tolerate bacteria in the water. The water in their lab tanks is highly filtered so that bacteria counts are below even government standards for swimming areas, Jones said. In addition, the fact that they are tethered means that the turtles aren't hitting up against the sides of the tanks and getting cuts through which bacteria can enter their systems. The leatherbacks, to which Jones has not given names, now weigh about 40 kilograms. Leatherback females weigh about 180 kilograms when they reach sexual maturity and about 350 kilograms as full-grown adults. Scientists think that leatherbacks live up to 80 years. Jones is not sure how long he will be able to keep the turtles in captivity. At some point, he said, they will eat more than the lab will be able to feed them. "We will keep them as long as we can, to learn as much as we can to conserve the species," he said. "When we have to release them, if there are still holes in the data, we will raise leatherbacks again."

Gathering data
The data that Jones is gathering include information about the turtles' weight and length. He is studying how the creatures regulate their body temperature – in the wild, they swim in water as cold as 4 degrees Centigrade – and how they rid their bodies of the sodium and potassium in the salt water they take in. He also keeps track of how much food they eat and calculates how those calories translate into growth. If turtles in the wild, faced with changing ocean climates, have to work harder to regulate body temperature, for example, or, faced with diminishing populations of prey, have to swim farther to find food, that means they are spending energy that would otherwise go into growth and reproduction. Jones, who has twice been honored with the Archie Carr Biology Award, named after the father of sea turtle conservation, is generous with all the data that he gathers. He publishes it in journals and scientific papers, he talks about it at scientific and government symposiums, and he discusses it with students of all ages, from elementary to college. "I try to make everyone excited about the turtles," he said. Jones insists that he is optimistic about the leatherback's future. When he talks to children, he said, "their eyes light up," and they readily promise to do what they can: to eliminate from their diets the fish and shrimp whose fisheries damage the leatherbacks, for example, and to eat local foods instead of food that is shipped across the country, spewing greenhouse gases all the way. "But then, I talk to an adult, and I say something about not eating shrimp and he says, 'Oh, I love shrimp,' then I realize we have a long way to go," Jones said. "Sometimes I just want to get out of this and do something else. It's too sad to stay with it," he added. "But then I feed a leatherback by hand, a creature that has been around for 100 million years, a creature that is so beautiful and so charismatic and so unique, and I realize we have to keep trying. "And then I talk with children, and everybody is so excited about saving the turtles, and I think, maybe there is a future."

News tips wanted
Call us with ideas for news and features. We're always looking for good stories to share with readers. Call Bryant Richardson at 629-9788.