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Environment & Wildlife, From the Field

Understanding Turtle Troubles Through the Eyes of a Hatchling

April 27th 2021

Imagine for a moment that you’ve just been born, but there are no parents or guardians to greet you. It is dark and disorienting. Now imagine you’re not human (bear with me), imagine where you might expect to find arms and legs you instead find flippers. Imagine your back is a shell, and you can walk and scramble about from the moment you open your eyes.

Sand scratches at your face, the substrate surrounding you is soft and gives way under your weight. You instinctively start to climb, the more you do so the more streams of light enter your vision, the more air enters your lungs. You emerge from the ground, from the nest that has kept you safe in your egg for the past 2 months. These are your first truly independent moments. You look out and take in the wide expansive terrain before you. You see hundreds of others, just like you. At this imagined moment in time, you are a newly hatched sea turtle.

A hazardous journeySea turtle hatchling crawling on beach KefaloniaSea Turtle Conservation | Volunteer in Greece | Working Abroad

Sea turtles are extremely vulnerable when they hatch, as they must navigate their way towards the sea and avoid predators on the journey. In scenes reminiscent of war films, hundreds of turtles head out across no man’s land to be picked off one by one from flying predators above, only a small number survive the journey. Yet, sea turtles must now face an additional hurdle in their bid to freedom, for predators above are no longer the only challenge they face making their first journey to the wide ocean. Now turtles are faced with a life-or-death decision, one which will result in them either heading out to sea or heading inland.

Newly hatched turtles rely on a few things to get them to the ocean, the sloping beach, the Earth’s magnetic pull, but the primary cue is light. The ocean naturally reflects light more so than the average land surface or vegetation, and so turtles are drawn to the light which they follow to the ocean. Unfortunately for turtles, this is no longer a straightforward strategy, as the ocean is not always the only light source, nor the brightest.

It’s night, moments after you’ve broken free from the safety of the sand’s depths. You’re looking out across the beach, searching for the light, searching for the glow of the ocean. There is a faint glow to your left, but your attention is immediately taken to the right of you where there is even more light, and it is even brighter. So bright in fact, that your periphery vision becomes blinded, all else in your surroundings is muted, everything else fades away into nothingness. This must be the way; this must be the light of the ocean.

Tourism and Light Pollution

Leatherback baby turtle hatchlingCosta Rica conservation | Sea turtle volunteer | Working Abroad

The rise in affordable travel combined with an increasing human population has seen more and more beach resorts dotting the shorelines of the world oceans. Unfortunately, this means that tourism hotspots now often collide with sea turtle nesting sites. Whilst holidaymakers select sandy beaches in warm climates with a thriving nightlife on the beachfront, to survive, sea turtles need all but the latter.

Studies have shown that artificial lights confuse turtle hatchlings as they follow the brightest light source, leading them away from the ocean. Even the lure to head downhill, a natural instinct of hatchlings, can be hampered by bright lights. This is particularly problematic when artificial lights are bright enough to blind hatchlings which causes severe disorientation.

In regions where beaches are now lit by artificial lights, turtle hatchlings have been found underneath streetlamps trying to climb towards the light, attempting to crossroads towards brightly lit restaurants, and becoming so tired and dehydrated from searching for the ocean whilst disorientated that they can simply die from thirst and exhaustion.

Why can’t we show them the way?

Sea turtle conservation volunteer in GreeceVolunteer with Turtles | Volunteer GreeceIt can be up to fifteen years later that sea turtle will return to the same beach they were born in order to reproduce. Whilst it is tempting to help sea turtle hatchling find the sea by physically taking them to it, sea turtles must complete the arduous journey from nest to sea in order to know where to return to all those years later.

That is why it is imperative that conservationists work with local communities, particularly businesses that rely on tourism, to reduce light pollution and increase public awareness and understanding of the needs of sea turtles. They were here first after all, and if they make it to the ocean, then they may be here long after we are gone.

How can you help?

Let us now imagine there is a different start to this story. You are still not human (don’t worry, I’m sure you’re getting the feel for it now). You are still a newly hatched sea turtle. But instead of there being no guardian to greet you, there is now a presence, of someone kindly watching over you. They are not like you, but they have been here for a while now, observing your nest and making sure you and your siblings are safe. They don’t interfere, which is good because that could be scary and confusing, you are only small after all.

You look out across the expansive terrain before you, you see hundreds of others just like you. You search for the light, and right on cue, there is the one light source you have been looking for. One glowing wave, acting like a flag. Light marks the spot, all else is in darkness. The light shows the way, shows the downhill tumble towards the ocean. You go forward, downhill, certain of your route and determined to reach the right destination.

If you would like to be a turtle guardian, you can join one of our ethical turtle volunteer programs here. When you volunteer on a sea turtle project, you will help conservationists with research and community outreach. You will assist with monitoring turtle nests, conduct beach walks, and help to educate local businesses and tourists on how to be turtle-friendly.

Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Jes Hooper 

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