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What makes turtles cool?

By:

Maryke Musson
Maryke is the CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation. She is a scientist by training, but an absolute superwoman in general, juggling the daily operations and fulfilling the mission of the Aquarium Foundation.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”.  

The Lorax. Dr. Seuss 

Conservation.

/ kɒnsəʳveɪʃən

(translations: ulondolozo; ukongiwa; poloko; bewaring; erhaltung; preservation; behoud; mālama; 保全; conservation; bevaring)

Conservation is protecting and saving the environment, which consists of plants, animals, natural areas and interesting and important structures and buildings.

(Protection is generally needed from the damaging effects of human activity).

(synonyms: preservation, protection, safeguarding, safe keeping, keeping, guarding, saving, looking after, care, charge, custody, guardianship, husbandry, supervision, keeping alive, maintenance, repair, restoration).

We love playing an integral part in conservation in South Africa, with direct impact in saving sea turtles. It is such a privilege to be located in the perfect position, and with ideal infrastructure thanks to the Two Oceans Aquarium, to contribute directly to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing sea turtles.

A turtle (/ˈtəːt(ə)l/) is defined as a large marine reptile with a bony or leathery shell and flippers, coming ashore annually on sandy beaches to lay eggs.

Sea turtles, along with other turtles and tortoises, are part of the order Testudines. All species except the leatherback sea turtle are in the family Cheloniidae. The leatherback sea turtle is the only extant member of the family Dermochelyidae.

(Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Reptilia; Order: Testudines).

All seven sea turtle species are listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and thus carry conservation status.

Why do we love saving turtles? Apart from the fact that they need to be saved, they are truly some of the most interesting animals and we have compiled a list of cool fun facts about turtles to inspire and excite you to help us save turtles too.

How can you save turtles? It is really easy to contribute to making the ocean a safer place for sea turtles (and all other marine animals). Turtles eat jellyfish, and plastic packets floating in the ocean look a lot like jellyfish, so by reducing, and ultimately refusing the use of single use plastic bags, there will be far less ‘plastic jellyfish’ in the ocean which will help saving turtles. Join a beach clean-up, only use reusable bags, say no to balloons, use reusable water bottles and eat your ice cream in a cone (instead of cup with a plastic spoon) and in doing so help saving sea turtles.

So what makes sea turtles so amazingly cool?

Turtles have been around for a very long time. They once shared the planet with dinosaurs. They have existed on earth for about 110 million years. It will be very sad if modern day humans caused the extinction of sea turtles now.

Turtles are amazing free divers. They can hold their breath for 4 – 7 hours, depending on their activity level. They can also dive really deep, with the leatherback turtles diving down to 1200 m which can last longer than an hour and the temperature can drop to 10°C. If they get stuck in ghost fishing gear and they get stressed and can’t get to the surface, they will drown.

The green turtles, are like lawnmowers, and keep the seagrass beds nice and trimmed. They are vegetarian as adults, and thrive on a sea-plant diet. They do not thrive on eating plastic though, so we really have to keep our ocean plastic free.

The temperature of the nest and eggs dictate whether the baby turtle will be male or female. Warmer eggs develop into females, while slightly colder eggs develop into males. Climate change can have a serious impact on turtle population dynamics, because if the earth warms up by even just 1°C, there could be shortage of male turtles.

Sea turtles are found all over the world, except around Antarctica. They definitely prefer warmer water. However, leatherback turtles, the ultimate ocean travellers, do venture to the Arctic circle, and as far south as New Zealand.

Turtles have a built-in compass, and female turtles return to the beaches where they hatched to go and nest, often two to three decades later. They use the magnetic fields of the earth as a map and they have a very strong sense of direction.

Tortoises live on land, and they can retract their heads and legs into their shells. Tortoises are often called turtles too. However, turtles cannot be called tortoises. Turtles live in or near water, and they cannot retract their heads and flippers into their shells. Some languages only use one word to describe both turtles and tortoises.

Turtles can swim quite fast, and we have seen that our legend of a turtle, Yoshi, swims faster than Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps. However, turtles are clever and use ocean currents so that they can save energy, that makes them smart swimmers. Yoshi travelled more than 40 000 km in 30 months, that is more than a marathon a day. What a champ.

If you look at a sea turtle X-ray, you will notice that they have five toes/fingers on each limb. They can totally give you a high five. A turtle’s shell is actually part of its skeleton, and is made up of over 50 bones, including the ribcage and spine. Turtles cannot come out of their shells, so their shells grow with them.

To end off, the strangest fact of all, but this time about tortoises. In 1968 the Soviet Union sent two tortoises into space on the Zond 5. They orbited around the moon and returned to earth after a week. Both turtles survived this journey, and thus orbited the moon before real astronauts did.

Sea turtles are amazing, so let’s keep loving and saving them.