Wandering the world’s oceans, sea turtles have fascinated people for thousands of years. But like many marine creatures, these ocean-going reptiles are struggling in a changing world.
These hazards are brought to life in Turtle Journey, a new film by Aardman and Greenpeace about a family of sea turtles. They face plastic pollution, oil drilling and industrial fishing as they struggle to get back home to safety.
There’s a plan to agree a global treaty this year to help protect huge areas of ocean and give sea turtles a better chance to survive. As if it weren’t obvious why they should be allowed to flourish, here are nine reasons why sea turtles are so incredible.
1. Sea turtles are ancient
Like, really old. Not just that they live long, but they have existed on earth for an incredible 150 million years. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, but the turtles are still with us.
2. Leatherback turtles are the world’s fastest moving reptiles
Cumbersome and sluggish on land, turtles seem as slow as their tortoise cousins do. But in the sea, leatherback turtles – whose shape allows them to slip through the water with ease – can rack up an impressive swimming speed of 35km per hour.
3. Leatherback turtles might also be the world’s biggest reptile
It really depends how you measure, but leatherback turtles can grow to the size of a double bed. This means it vies with the komodo dragon and the saltwater crocodile for the title of biggest reptile. Unless you count Nessie or Godzilla, that is.
4. Sea turtles have built-in GPS as standard
Turtles are true ocean wanderers. They travel thousands of miles across entire oceans to feed and breed. But luckily they have an in-built navigational system that allows female turtles to return to the very same beach where they were born to lay their own eggs.
5. Leatherback turtles love jelly
Leatherback turtles are gelatinovores, which means they eat jellyfish. Their throats are adapted to slurp down the slippery stinging jellies, with backward-facing spikes making it a one-way jelly journey. The bad news is that underwater a plastic bag can look exactly like a jellyfish, and turtles eat them by mistake.
6. Green turtles are vegetarians
Different turtles like different food – some crunch on shellfish, some snack on sponges – but green turtles like nothing better than grazing on seagrass or seaweed. Oddly, they only become vegetarian as adults – baby green turtles will eat anything.
7. A turtle’s sex is determined by temperature
Whether sea turtle hatchlings are born male or female depends on the temperature of where they happen to be located in the nest. If it’s warmer than 28–29ºC, the turtle is born female. Colder, and it’s male.
8. Baby turtles face an obstacle course of predators
Life is tough for baby turtles. They hatch from nests on the beach, then race towards the water. In between them and the ocean lie crabs, birds, lizards and other hungry creatures. But that’s just the start of it. Baby turtles know the odds are against them so, when they hit the water, they swim as far and fast as they can from the shore for days on end. Not bad for their first dip.
9. Sea turtles talk to each other before they hatch
People used to think that turtles don’t make noises. But we now know that’s just not true – sea turtles talk to each other before they’ve even hatched. While still in their individual eggs, turtles communicate with each other by making sounds. Researchers believe they do this in order to coordinate their hatching times.
It’s for these reasons – and many others – that sea turtles deserve a fighting chance. An oceans treaty will enable governments to create sanctuaries across the open ocean, safe from deep-sea mining, oil drilling and giant fishing trawlers. Protected areas will give sea turtles and other marine life the breathing space to better withstand plastic pollution and the effects of climate breakdown.
With a Global Ocean Treaty in place, healthy sea turtles can glide through the open seas well into the future.