Loggerhead Sea Turtles - Raising the Odds
Imagine having a one in ten thousand chance of surviving to see your twelfth birthday. These are the unfavorable odds that a Loggerhead sea turtle hatchling faces even before it hatches from its egg. Due to these odds, and to increasing outside threats, Belize has made a concerted effort to protect this species. One such approach is through education and awareness. In this past year, Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve launched a program in which volunteers assist the rangers in their turtle research. Recently I had the incredible opportunity to visit the reserve and witness a Loggerhead hatchling emerge from the last nest of the season.
Every year, from the end of June through mid-July, female Loggerheads head to select shores from the Eastern coast of the U.S. down through Central and South America to lay their eggs. When a female reaches the shore she trudges up the beach, above the high tide line, chooses a spot to lay her eggs, and starts digging. Using her rear flippers, she digs an egg chamber that is usually 20 inches deep and fills the hole with 100 - 120 golf ball-sized eggs. After this awe-inspiring process, which usually lasts up to twenty minutes, the female gently covers the eggs with sand, until the covered hole is spread with sand using her front flippers. Finally, she heads back to the sea, never to return to attend to her hatchlings.
After approximately 60 days, the Loggerhead hatchlings emerge at night, a time when there are fewer predators. One hatchling is usually responsible for leading the rest out of the nest and to the surface. Once at the surface, the group of hatchlings travel in mass to the water's edge and out to sea. Occasionally a few hatchlings are left behind to fend for themselves, rarely reaching the water. Majil Isaias, a ranger at Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve, and I found a lone hatchling presumably deserted by the rest of the group. We promptly put the hatchling in water and took it beyond the reef where it was released into the sea. Once the hatchlings reach the water, they begin a perilous journey fraught with predators, particularly sharks. If a Loggerhead hatchling reaches adult maturity (at 20 to 30 years), it will weigh between 200 - 350 pounds. Loggerheads typically lay several nests during one season and this pattern of sexual maturity can last up to 30 years. These reddish-brown sea turtles are characterized by and named for a large head that sometimes can be ten inches wide!
Loggerhead sea turtles are valuable components of the coastal zone ecosystem, yet their existence continues to be threatened. In Belize, these turtles face both natural and unnatural threats. Natural threats primarily affect turtle eggs, and these include beach erosion, which destroys critical nesting habitat, and the presence of native predators, such as raccoons and skunks, which eat the eggs. Humans also threaten Loggerhead survival by illegally harvesting the turtles for meat (a closed season exists from April 1 - October 31). Moreover, turtles continue to drown in gill nets and long lines, and are occasionally injured when they come into contact with motor boats. The odds of Loggerhead sea turtle survival are already stacked against them_they don't need negative human activity to make the odds worse.
These turtles need to be given the respect and protection they deserve as wonderful inhabitants of the Belize coastal zone. The 1999 nesting season for the Loggerhead has already been completed. If you are interested in assisting the rangers at Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve in their turtle monitoring program next year (during the summer months), you can contact them at 014-8099.
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