Turtle Recall

By Sophia Read

For The Bali Times

SEMINYAK ~ These days only a hermit would not realize that turtles are a threatened species. The media has flooded us with poignant images of turtles shedding salty tears as they slowly expire. Hunting or eating turtles, unlike hunting and eating equally threatened but less attractive animals, prompts an immediate disgusted reaction in most Westerners. Many tourists to this island, as well as a vocal minority of those who live here, are united in their condemnation of the Balinese practice of turtle sacrifice.

The majority of turtles that find their way to a higher spiritual plane in Bali are Chelonia Mydas, or Green Sea Turtles. They are listed as endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Turtles play a vital role in the maintenance of marine ecosystems, and they have been doing so for millennia – diving with turtles is as close as one can come nowadays to walking with dinosaurs (unless you went swimming with crocodiles – but that might prove a remarkably short experience).

The dietary mainstay of the Green Sea Turtle is sea grass. Sea grass needs to be constantly cut short by the grazing of marine mammals in order to flourish and grow (both turtles and manatees perform this vital role). Sea grass beds provide a fundamental habitat for breeding and development of many marine species – fish, shellfish, crustaceans. Turtles also act as a vector for the redistribution of the nutrients in the sea grass into the wider marine environment (don’t think too closely about it – it’s a good thing). Turtles contribute to the health of the dunes where they lay their eggs. Though an adult female turtle can lay around 200 eggs in one nest, and may make several nests during their reproductive season, many of these will not hatch, and the unhatched eggs will fertilize the hungry plants that stabilize the coastal ecosystem.

The turtle is threatened by many factors, not the least of which is the very nature of its life cycle. Like humans, these turtles live long lives (80 years in some cases), and reproduce only rarely, every two to four years. The Green Sea Turtle, in particular, is very selective about both feeding and nesting sites; they may travel long, long distances between the two and entire generations will choose the same feeding and nesting grounds, adults returning to the very beach where they themselves hatched decades before.

If these beaches have suddenly become luxury hotels, or the turtles cannot get to these specific beaches – no baby turtles. If the turtle is caught for its meat, or its shell – no turtle, and no possibility of future baby turtles.  Other threats include fisheries bycatch, the destruction of feeding beds and marine pollution – turtles often mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, and a jellyfish to a turtle is like caviar to a gourmet (sturgeon is a considerably less attractive, but almost as threatened species).

The Green Sea Turtle isn’t green – when it is alive it will be various shades of brown, with a pale yellow undershell. The name stems from the color of its body fat – green, due to the sea grass diet. Turtles do not have teeth, and in the green, unlike the hawksbill, the snout is short, and the beak unhooked. All turtles are air-breathing reptiles, and must return to the surface to breathe – if caught in fishing lines or nets, they can drown, even though green turtles have an ability to store enough air to last them for five hours underwater.

Many, many myths have grown up around the turtle – the North Americans call their land Turtle Island and regard the turtle as the mother of the world; the Chinese venerate the turtle as the Emperor of the North, and as a symbol of good luck. Terry Pratchett, one of the most prolific and popular authors writing today, created an entire fictional universe swimming on the back of a turtle.

In Hinduism, the turtle is a symbol of Vishnu, the founder of the world, who transforms into a giant turtle to stir the ocean. Turtle meat traditionally plays an important part in several Balinese temple ceremonies, and turtles are still caught and sacrificed today.

The recent establishment of the WWF-supported Turtle Centre in Serangan is a huge step forward for the conservation of the turtles in Bali. The centre aims to spark interest, and to hopefully foster an economy based on green, turtle-friendly tourism, rather than turtle sacrifice. The only way to stop the illegal trade in turtles is to provide a viable alternative for the turtle hunters. This will require government support, and a reasoned, financially sound plan for the communities that stand to loose their livelihoods.

The writer is sales manager for AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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