Today is World Turtle Day! This annual celebration was created in 2000, by the American Tortoise Rescue group (ATR) and it is now popular around the world. Its purpose is to generate awareness, admiration, and respect, as well as to encourage conservation, for these ancient reptiles and their habitats. Costa Rica, a country famous for its biodiversity, is home to several species of freshwater, land, and sea turtles with a total of 15 species, grouped into 6 families and 10 genera.
While all the varieties are important, there is no doubt that sea turtles are the star attractions of the show. These turtles lay eggs on many beaches on both the Pacific and the Caribbean seashores all year long. Here you can spot 4/7 of the species of sea turtles that inhabit the world: olive ridley, leatherback, green, and hawksbill sea turtles. Sadly, almost all of them are in danger of extinction.
Most national parks in Costa Rica are nesting grounds to one or more turtle species. One of them is named after its seafaring visitors: Tortuguero. At Ostional Wildlife Refuge, as many as 20,000 olive ridley sea turtles can come on the shore to nest in a single night. In about a week, up to 10 million eggs are buried on the beach. This event is called “arribada” or mass arrival. Scientists think that by coming in such huge numbers all at once, turtles overwhelm predators and increase their chances of survival. Costa Rica is one of the 9 places in the world where this occurs.
*Turtles are ancient. They go back 220 million years to the Late Triassic Period. Turtles have their own scientific group: Archosauria and their closest relatives are birds, crocodiles, and dinosaurs.
* They come in all shapes and sizes and live in very different environments. They range from the tiny American bog turtle to giant, land-dwelling tortoises (like the ones in Galapagos Island or their less known cousins in Aldabra Island).
*The biggest sea turtle is the leatherback, which can grow to over 7 feet long (2.13 meters) and weigh from 500 to 2,000 pounds (226.8 to 907 kilos).
*The mytheme of a world bearing giant turtle is part of several cultures around the world. It is mentioned in India, China, and North America. A modern variation of the myth is Maturin, a character created by Stephen King, an American writer. It is “a Turtle of massive size with an ancient appearance”. Maturin is so big that “it is said to have vomited out our Universe when it had a stomach ache.” In King’s universe, Maturin is one of the twelve Guardians of the Beams that hold up The Dark Tower.
*Turtles have a very long lifespan. One animal, named Tu”i Malila (AKA Captain James Cook’s turtle) of Tonga Island, in the South Pacific, died at 188 in 1965. It was the longest-lived tortoise whose age has been verified.
*Unfortunately for them, turtles can be tasty. Once there were about 300,000 giant tortoises on the Galapagos Archipelago, but they were decimated by British whalers and pirates in the 18th and 19th century. They took them on their ships as fresh food. When Darwin’s ship, The Beagle, visited the Galapagos Archipelago, before their voyage to Polynesia, they took more than 30 live tortoises.
*Guīlínggāo, also known as Tortoise Jelly or Turtle Jelly, is both a staple of traditional Chinese medicine and a dessert. It is usually made from the powdered bottom shell or plastron from the “three-lined box turtle” or “golden coin turtle” and a variety of herbal products. it is extremely expensive.
*In some species the sex of the offspring can be determined by the environment’s temperature on the eggs. Lower temperatures will produce males while higher temperatures will produce females.
*In September 1968, the Soviet Union launched the space probe Zond 5. Two Russian tortoises were part of the crew. After a week in space, the probe returned to Earth. The tortoises were brought back for study. They had lost about 10% of their body weight, and suffered some changes in their organisms but survived the trip and were active and hungry.
* In English, the term turtle usually designates the aquatic species while tortoise refers to turtles that live on land. Freshwater turtles are called terrapins.
* Crush, the character in the movie “Finding Nemo”, is a sea turtle and a surfer dude. He is represented as somewhat intoxicated. There is a reason. When sea turtles eat jellyfish, the toxins in the jelly do not harm them but rather give them a marijuana-like “high”.
After having thrived for millions of years, nowadays turtles are having big problems to survive. Tortoises are poached or taken away from their habitats to become pets or food. They are affected by forests fires and human encroachment of their habitats. They are often hit by cars and attacked by domestic animals.
Most marine species are classified as threatened or endangered due to human activities. Sea turtles are affected by chemical pollution and coastal development. They get sick or die when they mistakenly eat floating plastic bags (that resemble jellyfish, their usual prey). They get caught in fishing rigs or as “bycatch” along with fish. They are hit by boats and other vessels. Poachers kill them for their meat, eggs, and shells.
On this day, there are many turtle oriented activities all over the country. Many tourist facilities, besides dedicated turtle watching tours, have education programs among its guest offerings, so it is likely that you can get involved in one of them. Check out their schedules in advance.
* Remember that these activities are carefully regulated to protect both the animals and the nesting sites.
* You will require permission from the authorities as well as a guide to visit the nesting site.
* Turtles feel very vulnerable out of the water so they are very stressed on land. Do your very best not to disturb the animals in any way. Remain quiet and avoid flash pictures (no selfies, no turtle petting please!), harsh flashlights, fires or loud noises.
This can be a great experience. Keep in mind that “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
Master Oogway, Giant Galápagos Tortoise (Kung Fu Panda)