The Sea Turtle

The Sea Turtle

Called the Green Turtle because of the green fat beneath their shells
Green turtle, photo by Brocken Inglory

The brutal murder of Jairo Mora Sandoval exposed the tension at the heart of Costa Rica’s reinvention as the ideal place for eco-tourism.  Sea Turtle conservationists have generated traction, and posted a reward, for the arrest of his killers (#jairomora), but mainstream news channels  barely registered the act.  In this piece I shall tell you more about the Sea Turtle and the work carried out around the world to protect this fabulous animal.  I shall explain how poachers are able to make a living from killing Sea Turtles and how Jairo met his untimely end.

What is a Sea Turtle?

Turtles are the voyaging cousins of tortoises and terrapins.

Called the Green Turtle because of the green fat beneath their shells
Green Turtle, photo by Mark Thorpe

While there are over 200 species of fresh water turtles, there are only seven species of Sea Turtle.  These animals are pre-historic and then some; Sea Turtles have been around for at least 100 million years.

Sea Turtles gained their distinctive shape from living just about all of their lives in the water.  A streamlined shell (aquadynamic, I just like the word and thought you might) and flippers mean that they can swim, and swim, and swim. Indeed the male turtles of most species never leave the sea after hatching and the female turtles only brave the shore to lay their large batches of eggs.  Most of this swimming takes place underwater and their ability to survive under the ocean waves for long periods comes from their biggest adaptations; they can turn to anaerobic respiration when oxygen is in short supply and they can take very big breaths.

Respiration is the biological process that converts the energy in food into the type used by our bodies.  We, humans, use aerobic respiration, which means oxygen facilitates the conversion; we can also use anaerobic respiration, though normally only if we exercise too hard for our lungs to keep up.  Anaerobic respiration does not use oxygen, it is less effective than aerobic respiration, which might explain why turtles are not the most dynamic of creatures.  On the plus side anaerobic respiration is less damaging to cells than the aerobic type (fewer free radicals; get me with the science!), and this could be the reason that Sea Turtles live to such a glorious old age – other hazards aside.

After hours below the waves even Sea Turtles have to surface and when they do they can exchange half the gas in their lungs in a single breath.  When we are breathing quietly we exchange about 10% of the gas in our lungs with each breath.  While we can increase the size of our breaths, it is only by constantly breathing deeply – which is no good underwater.  Free divers hold their breath for between 5 and 10 minutes depending how the depth they achieve and the amount of activity (11 minutes and 35 seconds is the world record for a man to hold his breath, but he wasn’t swimming – Static Apnoea is the technical term for holding your breath under water without moving).  Thanks to these two adaptations (anaerobic respiration and huge breaths) Sea Turtles can swim underwater for up to five hours.

Some turtles can also get oxygen directly from water using gill like features in their cloacal orifice aka bottom – however only the ‘side necked’ turtles have this ability; sea turtles are not side necked.

As we know female Sea Turtles come to shore to lay their eggs.  The eggs vary in size from ping-pong to tennis ball and (depending on the species) up to 100 are laid in a single night.  Yes turtles are denizens of the dark, at least when nesting, as this protects the mother and her clutch of eggs from predators such as gulls, wild cats and feral dogs.

A single hatchling looks for the sea by day, a dangerous attempt
Photo by kind permission of Sarah Rose

The eggs also tend to hatch at night, for the same reason, and the sight of hundreds of newly hatched sea turtles scuttling en masse to the sea is a familiar to many of us from nature programmes.

Incredibly, despite migrating for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles both genders return to the same mating grounds and the females of the species return to the same area, if not the same beach, to nest.  Despite the cost of such epic journeys and the difficulties of navigation, this behaviour may give Sea Turtles a distinct advantage as genetic adaptations seem to protect them from the threat of indigenous disease on their home turf, whereas they could be vulnerable to the bacteria and viruses found further afield.

Once in the sea, it is time to eat and grow; all but the Green Turtle are omnivores (the Green Turtle starts out as a carnivore and settles into a herbivore lifestyle later in life); the animal prey of Sea Turtles includes jelly fish, crustaceans and the gooey creatures that live on / in the sea bed, but each species has its own diet.  These diets make the Sea Turtle very important to human life, for example the Loggerhead Turtle controls jelly fish populations, protecting us from stings when we are in the sea, and preventing a population explosion of jelly fish.  Unchecked jelly fish populations can wipe out entire food chains – indeed Mnemiopsis (one of the gazillion species of jelly fish) so over populated the Black Sea in the 80s that 95% of the biomass in the sea was this one type of jelly fish.

Unfortunately all the Sea Turtle species are in decline; the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (more later) works out how endangered every species of animal and plant on the planet;  this information is presented in the Red List.  The Red list categorises five of the seven Sea Turtle species as endangered – three critically so (see table).  The Leatherback Turtle may only have five years left.  The poor Flatback Turtle doesn’t even have an official categorisation as there is not enough data, I don’t think that bodes well for its chances of survival.



Population trend

Chelonia mydas (Green Turtle)

Endangered A2bd ver 3.1


Eretmochelys imbricata (Hawksbill Turtle)

Critically Endangered A2bd ver 3.1


Natator depressus (Flatback)

Data Deficient ver 2.3

(needs updating)

Caretta caretta (Loggerhead)

Endangered A1abd ver 2.3

(needs updating)

Lepidochelys kempii (Kemp’s Ridley)

Critically Endangered A1ab ver 2.3

(needs updating)

Lepidochelys olivacea (Olive Ridley)

Vulnerable A2bd ver 3.1


Dermochelys coriacea (Leatherback)

Critically Endangered A1abd ver 2.3


These links show maps developed by the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group – they show where the most threatened populations of Sea Turtles live, and the healthiest.

Why is the Sea Turtle in danger?

Sea Turtles have long been a staple food for many coastal communities, but many more people eat them as a delicacy and because they believe that consuming Sea Turtle blood, eggs and meat will improve health and virility.  Killing Sea Turtles or disturbing their nests is illegal in many countries, but this doesn’t impact demand; in Mexico a single egg can fetch more money than the daily minimum wage.  On high days and holidays celebrating people consume all things turtle – demonstrating their popularity as a dish for special occasions and driving the demand which leads to poaching.  As we will see, the illegal collection of turtles and their eggs is a lucrative trade; one of the primary roles of Sea Turtle conservationists is protecting turtles from poachers.

Would you eat Sea Turtle? I am sure you have heard of Green Turtle soup, search on-line and you will find recipes, and a warning from National Geographic that it is dangerous for humans to eat this soup. I understand that Green Turtles find it hazardous too.

Thousands of Sea Turtles die needlessly each year as the by-catch of both net and pole fishermen.  Around the world conservationists encourage fishermen to build Turtle Excluder Devices into their nets or to use round hooks when fishing with a pole.  In the Philippines the move to the new shaped hooks has been successful and saves over 15,000 Sea Turtles a year.

So, we humans are dangerous to Sea Turtles when we act consciously; unfortunately many of our unconscious activities also have devastating consequences for these ancient reptiles.  It is not unknown for Sea Turtles to mistake plastic bags for food, and, with such a wide diet, almost any plastic waste can seem attractive to a hungry Sea Turtle.  I didn’t want to put this photo directly on the blog (it is pretty grisly); it shows the stomach contents of a juvenile Green Turtle – everything in the stomach is plastic and the turtle probably starved to death – photo by Gustavo Stahelin .

Gulf of Mexico oil spill reaches Luisiana shore line
Photo by Wallace J. Nichols (

Of course the impact of pollution doesn’t end there; oil kills turtles as it leaks into their habitat (they tend to stick to continental shelves, right where we drill for oil).  In the last couple of weeks the media have reported on the impact on the (relatively) small Kemp’s Ridley Turtle of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.

Turtle is rescued from oil in Luisiana
Photo by Wallace J. Nichols (

And where would we be without a nod to climate change?  Whether you agree that CO2 emissions are causing climate change, the visible changes in the breeding and nesting grounds of Sea Turtles cannot be argued with.  Destruction of the Great Barrier Reef is caused by rises in temperature and ocean acidification, which happens when the water absorbs CO2.  Six of the seven species of Sea Turtle frequent the waters of Queensland and seeing one is a highlight for all divers on the Great Barrier Reef. On the other side of the world, off the coast of Panama, the San Blas islands are host to thousands of nesting turtles.  Unfortunately this archipelago is also subject to extreme flooding, which will kill adult, juvenile and un-hatched turtles alike.

What is being done to protect the Sea Turtle?

Unit still taken on the set of Battle In Seattle Day 1
Demonstrators march on Washington
Photo by Wallace J. Nichols (

Fortunately the Sea Turtle is not without its friends.  Since the late 1950 many groups have sought to protect these gentle giants from the worst that man can throw at them.  The web addresses of the groups I used to research this article are given in the ‘What can I do to help’ section.

Early we saw the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s categorisation of Sea Turtles on their ‘Red List’.  Being on this list means that governments and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) are more likely to take active steps to protect Sea Turtles – I know, taking steps after they become endangered is shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse has bolt, but it is a lot better than letting the situation continue as it is.

Jairo Mora Sandoval

Costa Rica has reinvented itself as a wonderful location for ecological tourism and the Costa Rica Sanctuary in Tortuguero (Land of the Turtles) is a key part of the move from turtle tourism (ie eating them and selling their shells) to this more sustainable model.  It is also where Jairo worked.  The employees of the sanctuary, with volunteers, monitor and protect the beaches of Tortuguero, particularly Moin; they protect adult Sea Turtles from human and animal predators so that they are able to nest and return to the sea.  And, when the time comes, they care for the hatchlings in the same way.

On the night of Thursday 30 May kidnappers took Jairo and four volunteers.  The volunteers escaped unharmed, and Jairo was found dead on the morning of Friday 31 May.

Over the last few months Jairo wrote articles in the Costa Rican press linking turtle poaching to drug trafficking.  In April he posted a Facebook message asking for the police to attend the beach in Moin, and to come armed, as poachers had killed 60 turtles before they could nest.  He had also been threatened, at gun point, in a bid to stop his patrols.

The owner of the sanctuary, Vanessa Lizano, has been quoted as saying that poachers can earn as much as $300 American a night and that the killers were after Jairo because he protected the turtles.  In other words Jairo stood in the way of the lucrative poaching trade and those who benefit from it decided to remove this champion of the Sea Turtle.

What can you do to help?

Whether you would like to take an ecological holiday, work directly in Sea Turtle conservation, adopt a turtle or make a donation, there are many charitable organisations supporting Sea Turtles.  I have chosen the following based purely on whether I used them during my research for this article; there are many more.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project works directly with the Costa Rican Sanctuary, where Jairo Mora Sandoval lived and worked.  You can sponsor a turtle or make a donation through this site.

If you wish to support the reward fund for capture of Jairo’s killers, click this link and put his name in the ‘in honor of’ box.

Adopt a turtle through the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Directly support scientists through the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

As well as offering the opportunity to sponsor a turtle, is packed with amazing data, including turtle tracking, and lots of other resources.  Many of the pictures used to illustrate this piece came from the Image Library managed by

MEDASSET are supported by King’s College, Tauton in hosting a very informative website.  This link is to a page giving a blow-by-blow account about how we are driving each of the seven remaining species into extinction – unlike the other sites this one is European.

The Defenders of Wildlife (US)

The Perkiomen Watershed

Widecast – an international scientific network.

Reference material – some references linked within post

Andy Revkin blogs for the New York Times and reported on Jairo’s murder, giving lots of good links

Wikipedia – of course

A WWF-Malaysia report into the Sea Turtle egg trade in Malaysia (largely still legal).  It is full of facts and gives an insight into the cultural aspects of the trade.

Another WWF-Malaysia report, this time showing the results of a study of a population of Sea Turtles and making recommendations for their protection.

In addition to maintaining the Red list, the IUCN do a ton of other good stuff and their website is well worth visiting.

This site helped me understand why some websites claimed that Sea Turtles use anaerobic respiration and others that they extract oxygen directly from water.

Gustavo Shalelin’s photo is used under the conditions of Creative Commons 3.0.

Wallace J. Nichols photos are used under the conditions of Creative Commons Public Domain Licence.

Photos by Brocken Inaglory and Mark Thorpe used under Creative Commons Share Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic.

Sarah Rose’s picture is reproduced with the kind permission of Sarah Rose.

Other blogs covering this subject


The glytodon

Animal Post

World Kid’s blog

Great pictures taken by a Honeymooner


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