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On St. Patrick’s Day, This Green Animal will be on my Mind
For most, St. Patrick’s Day means wearing green and drinking beer. For many wildlife species, green is always a part of their daily wardrobe. This St. Patrick’s Day, I will be thinking about a very special animal that likes to wear green year-round – the sea turtle.
Sea turtles are some of the oldest living creatures on earth, with fossils dating back more than 110 million years. These air-breathing reptiles are incredibly adapted to marine living, and throughout their long life (green sea turtles have an expected lifespan of 80 to 100 years or more!), they migrate long distances between feeding and nesting sites.
Close Encounters of the Turtle Kind
I have been fortunate enough to have had multiple encounters with this amazing animal. My first memorable sea turtle experience was when I was 17, scuba diving a reef 40 feet deep in the Caribbean Sea. I had just come to the edge of the reef when a hawksbill turtle swam up from below me. As I drifted alongside the graceful animal for a few minutes, there was a moment when we made eye contact- a moment imprinted in my mind ever since.
Last year I had the opportunity to work with sea turtles at Mote Marine Laboratory, a research and rehabilitation aquarium in Florida. I was thrilled to feed the recovering turtles, clean their tanks, and even train the resident loggerheads. These tasks were not as meaningful, however, as my experience participating in the release of Cowboy, a loggerhead that recovered after sustaining injuries from a fishing line entanglement. As I watched Cowboy dive into the sea, I was grateful for the second chance he had at life as a wild animal. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think about the potential threats he will face in the future.
An Uncertain Future
Direct causes of mortality for sea turtles include entanglement in fishing gear and turtle and egg poaching. Their environment is as risk due to marine debris, beach habitat degradation, oil spills, and harmful fishing practices. And now, sea turtles are greatly threatened by climate change.
Sea turtles are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise that is eroding the beaches where they nest. Florida’s beaches host 90% of all sea turtle nesting in North America, and according to the NWF Wildlife in a Warming World report, Florida’s central Atlantic Coast will see a projected 49-80% decline in beach area as the sea level rises.
Warming air and ground temperatures can result in fewer eggs that produce male sea turtle hatchlings, so whole populations could end up being comprised entirely of females. Climate change also has the potential to drastically damage coral systems — which are important feeding areas for turtles — due to rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification.
A Symbol of Persistence
The sea turtle is a common symbol of longevity, strength, and persistence: are we willing to let these incredible animals disappear when we have the power to take action on climate change?
On St. Patrick’s Day, do what you can to protect the future for sea turtles and add a little more “green” to your wardrobe.