Leatherback Turtles, Ancient UnderwaterGiants

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paws:Ancient UnderwaterGiants

 Leatherback Turtles

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 our past.



 From Benjarong Magazine – Febuary 2003, Volume 6 Issue 2

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