What I Learned from the Sea Turtles

I had the amazing experience of swimming with sea turtles in the Caribbean ocean this past month. The sea turtles lived right at the shores of our resort in Akumal Bay, Mexico, and I could just slip on my snorkel mask, walk into the water, swim a few meters and there they were. My heart jumped to my throat at my first sighting of these graceful creatures, quietly eating sea grass at the bottom of the ocean. So I spent 2-3 hours a day snorkeling and watching them, fascinated with their graceful swimming through the water, using their powerful flippers as wings for flight. Now back to real life, or juggling work and family life, I am so grateful for this precious time that I had to just be in nature and appreciate these animals. When I get stressed and overwhelmed (pretty much at some point every day), I remember the sea turtles, and I know that they are still living there in Akumal Bay, eating and swimming and quietly living their peaceful life.

I am, in no way, a biologist, but I am an avid learner, and immediately when I returned back to cold Toronto, I took out books from the library about sea turtles. I wanted to learn, to better understand and appreciate their existence. Sea turtles are endangered, and their beautiful existence is threated by our human activity – habitat destruction, climate change, and slaughtering for food. As Jane Goodall wrote: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. The greatest danger to our future is apathy.” And so I continue to learn, so I can try to understand, and my caring will deepen.

Sea turtles are way older than us humans, and are tracked back to at least 150 million years old, living with the dinosaurs during the Jurassic period. Land turtles go back even farther than that, and sea turtles evolved originally from land turtles (the turtles we normally think of). Sea turtles have evolved to be different from land turtles in two significant ways. One, sea turtles have flippers instead of feet to swim. These flippers are designed like bird wings, to be aerodynamic, and extremely thin and sharp (one book even said that the ends of the flippers are razor-sharp – watch out snorkelers!). Thanks to these aerodynamic flippers, sea turtles look so beautiful like a bird of the sea, flying through the water.

Second, unlike land turtles, sea turtles cannot pull their head into their shell. The stereotypical image of the turtle pulling its head into its shell does not apply to sea turtles. The biologists have rationalized this evolutionary adaptation as a way to for sea turtles to be more aerodynamic. Having a hole for the sea turtle to retract its head would make it less aerodynamic. Instead, sea turtles have evolved to have a hard skull to protect them, as their head is exposed.

Sea turtles need to breathe air. I watched them swim up to the surface of the water, poke their little head up, take a quick gulp of air and then swim back down to the sandy bottom. Their breathing is fascinating, because they live in the sea, are comfortably at home in the sea, but need to come up for air. They don’t seem panicked by their need for air, not worried about if and when they can get their next breath. If they are actively swimming or eating, sea turtles need to breathe every 20-30 minutes. But when sea turtles are sleeping, they can go up to 10 hours without taking a breath. Their heart rate slows down to as little as 9 beats a minute to conserve oxygen.

Lastly, I am fascinated by learning about sea turtles inherent sense of direction and home. Sea turtles know where they are, both in the ocean and on land. Did you know that the pregnant female sea turtle always swim to the same beach where she was originally hatched, to hatch her own eggs? This sea turtle may have traveled thousands of miles through the ocean, but as soon as she is pregnant and ready to hatch her eggs, she will find her home beach to lay her eggs. Home is ingrained in her memory. How does she find her beach? Biologists believe that sea turtles can sense the angle and intensity of earths magnetic field. I was blown away when I read about this. Turtles magnetic sense is their super power, as they possess their own internal compass that provides them with a constant orientation and sense of place/space relative to the Earth’s magnetic field. To be honest, I don’t understand this at all, and the more I read about it, the more I realize what I don’t know. Learning is just as much about recognizing what you don’t know then understanding what you do know. As I read more into this, I found out that on earth, we are surrounded by a ‘magnetosphere’ – a magnetic field made up of vertical and horizontal magnetic lines curving from pole to pole. Sea turtles can sense this magnetic field, and have a magnetic memory for the places they’ve been.

I don’t understand what this is about. I certainly don’t have any sense of a magnetic shield that grounds me or provides me with direction. When I learn about this, I get the haunting sense that I am missing out on elements of life that surround me, but I may not have the focus or openness to tap into it. What would it feel like to sense this magnetic field, to have a magnetic memory that grounded us in our place? And what if we connected with our place of birth in the same way as pregnant sea turtles? What would it feel like to grounded by birth and birth place in this way?

What I do know is that the sea turtles, with their ancient eyes and graceful movements, are imprinted in my brain, and my spirit fills with joy when I imagine them eating and swimming at Akumal Bay. I will try to find a way to help these sea turtles, with hopes that we can turn the tide around so they can survive and thrive on this earth. As Jane Goodall said: “The least I can do is speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.”


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