A baby turtle has a hard life. Only one in one thousand make it to become an adult turtle. Put yourself in their flippers for a moment. First, they must struggle through about 18 inches of sand to get out of the nest. Then, they immediately become prey to a host of predators before they can even reach the sea. Birds, dogs, crabs, snakes, even jaguars will snatch them and eat them.
Turtles are air breathers and do not have gills to breathe underwater like fish. A turtle must surface for air. A baby turtle who has not developed its lungs yet can only stay submerged a few seconds. Mature sea turtles can stay underwater for up to 7 hours or more, depending on their activity. But a newborn can be seen popping its little head up every few seconds, making it possible for a pelican or other marine bird to swoop down and gobble it up. Even underwater they are prey to other sea creatures.
A baby sea turtle has no parental protection like many other animals. Once the mother turtle lays the eggs she heads back to the sea never to return to that nest again. Male turtles never come ashore unless they are sick and dying. So these little newborns scramble to the comparative safety of the sea on their own. A sea turtle is born with an energy reserve that can nourish it for a couple of days until it can find some seagrass to munch on. Nevertheless, it is one of the most vulnerable of the creatures in the ocean.
I returned recently to Campamento Tortuguero Ayotlcalli , together with some friends to release the newborn turtles we had rescued some 45 days before. The experience was inspirational. Something like seeing any creature being born. You marvel at the wonder of new life. Babies of any species are so vulnerable. It’s almost heartbreaking to know that perhaps none of the hundred or so baby turtles we watched go to the sea for the first time are likely to survive to adulthood. Still, with our good wishes and prayers, they ventured into the Pacific Ocean.
In the fifteen years or more (depending on the breed) that it takes to reach maturity, a sea turtle will travel many miles. it’s not unusual for a turtle born on the Pacific coast of Mexico to travel as far as Japan before returning to spawn as an adult on the beach near where it was born. With all the obstacles it faces it’s not surprising that only one in one thousand makes it to become an adult turtle.
As Gene and Damaris explained the release process to us, I had one question; how do the turtles know where to return to spawn if they have traveled so far from their original beach?
It’s very important that the newborn turtles scramble over the beach to the water. They have a sort of built in GPS system in their abdomen which notes the geographical coordinates of their location as well as the texture and qualities of the sand they traverse. This information is recorded in their system and allows them to return to where they were born in order to breed and spawn as adults.