Six hundred miles off the West coast of South America lie the Galápagos Islands, an archipelago of islands formed by mighty volcanic eruptions that began over four million years ago with the creation of Espanola and continue to this day with the youngest of the islands, Fernandina, now a mere million years old.
Three powerful ocean currents converge on this archipelago, the Humboldt Current, the Panama Flow and the Cromwell Current. These deep-lying currents bring rich nutrients to the islands; decaying organic matter from flora and fauna that is propelled to the surface by water warmed from volcanic activity. This in turn brings the countless species of marine life that make the Galápagos Islands an incredible natural paradise.
Amongst these many species can be found four species of sea turtle, only one of which nests on the many island beaches. The green turtle is the most commonly found turtle amongst the islands and has some very interesting nesting habits that are tied to the cycles of the moon. When the moon is at its fullest, the female green turtles make the arduous journey out of the water, hauling their bodies up the beach above the tideline to find suitable places in the dunes to excavate their nests with the laborious scraping of their flippers. The very same dunes from which they themselves emerged from their eggs many years before.
The full moon offers the highest tides, ensuring that the turtles can tell how high they need to climb to leave their eggs safe from the ebb and flow of the crystal waters, while the bright light of the full moon enables them to see better and avoid dangers on the beach.
Each nesting session can yield between 50 and 200 eggs, which is followed by an incubation period of around two months. If the temperatures are cooler, reaching around or below 82 degrees Fahrenheit, all the turtles will be male. If the weather is significantly warmer, maintaining temperatures above 88 degrees Fahrenheit, the hatchlings will all be female. The nesting season of the green turtle unfolds from January to May and during this period the females return multiple times to the nesting grounds, laying fresh clutches of eggs with each visit. This cyclic dedication is needed to ensure the continuation of their species as they face many predators, including introduced species such as pigs, dogs, rats and cats.
To increase the chances of individuals surviving the perilous race down the beach to the water, the eggs in a clutch usually hatch at the same time. Numerous predators, including cormorants, albatrosses, gulls, frigate birds, crabs, hawks, and many others, wait for the hatchlings and eat most of them before they even reach the sea. They are not safe even in the water because sharks and frigate birds prey on them. The few who are successful face a struggle to survive and develop until they are between the ages of 26 and 40, when they reach maturity. It is estimated that as few as 1% of the eggs laid survive to become an adult turtle.
Early sailors navigating the Galápagos waters recognized the sea turtles’ importance beyond their nesting rituals and soon discovered that the hardy green turtle could stay alive for many months out of the water, making them a great source of fresh meat on long journeys.
In the present day, the Galápagos National Park plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the nesting sites of these revered sea turtles. Recognizing the significance of these ancient rituals, the park implements strict conservation measures to protect the nesting grounds and the turtles’ well-being, marking nest sites with flags and signage warning tourists to keep clear of them. It is vitally important not to move the eggs unless trained and authorised to do so. Eggs must remain the same way up throughout the incubation period or the embryo will die.
By championing conservation efforts, the Galápagos NationalPark helps preserve the delicate balance of the islands’ ecosystems. They collaborate with scientists, researchers, and local communities to study and protect the nesting sites, monitor the turtles’ populations, and mitigate potential threats.
Galápagos sea turtles symbolize not only the resilience of their species but also the commitment of organizations like the Galápagos National Park to their preservation. As we observe these majestic creatures in their nesting season, we are reminded of the significance of conserving their habitats and the interconnectedness of all living beings.
Through responsible tourism, education, and respect for ongoing conservation efforts, we can each play our part in ensuring that the Galápagos green turtle can co-exist with humanity and grace our oceans for generations to come.