By Marie Moon
She makes her way through the sand in slow, awkward steps. Although
she is not used to threading on land, there is a determination to
her gait. Occasionally she cocks her head, scouring the beach around
her. This is the same beach she was born on, the beach where her
mother and grandmother have given birth for longer than she can
remember. It is her turn now to start a new cycle of existence and
she must hurry.
Hers is a journey that began some 65 million years ago. The leatherback
turtle traveled the oceans of this planet even before dinosaurs
walked the earth. Its habitat spans the globe from the North Atlantic
near the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific around New Zealand.
Leatherback turtles grow the largest, dive the deepest and travel
the farthest of all sea turtles.
The leatherback is named for its large, elongate shell which is
composed of a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin, strengthened by
thousands of tiny bone plates. Seven narrow ridges run down the
length of the carapace, which is typically black with many white
spots. The lower shell is whitish to black and marked by 5 ridges.
The body of a leatherback is barrel shaped, tapering at the rear
to a blunt point. With this streamlined body shape and powerful
front flippers, a leatherback can swim thousands of miles over open
seas and against fast currents.
With a special notch in their beak in place of teeth, these turtles
feed exclusively on jellyfish and soft bodied animals. Although
male leatherbacks never leave the water, female ones have only one
and a half hours to complete their mission of nesting and never
return to their nest. The length of incubation and sex of the baby
turtles is inextricably linked to the temperature of the sand, which
means that warm sand will yield more females while cold sand more
males. The leatherback may nest several times in one season, but
each nesting season is followed by two to three years of non-breeding.
Although 50 to 180 eggs may be laid at one time and nesting may
occur six to nine times per season, scientists estimate that only
one in a thousand hatchlings will survive to adulthood. Although
leatherback turtles may live for over 100 years, nowadays very few
will be allowed to die of old age.
Their natural predators include crabs, birds, dogs and the largest
predator alive: humans. Fishing nets and lines trap unsuspected
leatherbacks, causing them to die from drowning. Exploitation of
coastal lines for the promotion of tourism or private purposes results
in the loss of nesting beaches. Furthermore, the use of bright lights
on beaches have a diverse effect on the survival of hatchlings that
are drawn by their instinct to follow the bright light of the horizon.
Straying from the sea into the lights of nearby land, the turtles
die from dehydration. Eggs are stolen from nests to be sold on the
black market as aphrodisiacs. Plastic bags irresponsibly thrown
into the ocean are sometimes mistaken for jellyfish and poison the
leatherbacks as they attempt to feed. Water and beach pollution
can affect both adults and turtles in the egg.
Because of the sudden degradation of their population, leatherback
turtles have been declared as globally endangered species since
1970. In Thailand
itself the protection of this species officially began in 1996.
Phuket’s Mai Khao beach is a nesting ground for leatherback turtles.
The Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation was established by the JW
Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa in 2002, following an initiative
of WFT (Wildlife Fund Thailand)/WWF in 1991. The hotel not only
donated 2 million baht to launch the fund, but followed strict guidelines
in the construction of its hotel with the aim to preserve the nesting
ground of this grand creature. The Fund, which basically involves
local people, is meant to protect leatherback eggs by transferring
them to a hatchery, away from the dangers of exploitation and the
adversities of mother nature. After an incubation period of about
50-65 days, the baby turtles are released into the wild. This event
coincides with the celebration of Songkran (Thai New Year). Local
people are also responsible for patrolling the beach during the
breeding season, to protect the turtles while nesting and to keep
records of the number of eggs laid.
Leatherback turtles can be seen at the Phuket
Aquarium and the Navy Turtle Protection Center. But, if you happen
to be on the beach while this giant is out, make sure to stay still
and quiet and do not go near her head, as this might scare her back
into the sea. Shining flashlights or camera flashes straight into
her eyes is also devastating for the turtle.
A person who witnesses the nesting of this giant creature can indeed
be considered lucky. For this creature carries within herself the
knowledge and wisdom of the past, a history not only of the shores
that she has swum past, but of the entire evolution of this planet.
Protecting this creature gives us a better chance of understanding