Slow & Steady
DA FOAH, Ghana—Phil Allman’s beloved sea turtles are under attack. Poachers sell them for a few dollars in the local market. Hungry dogs and pigs roam the beaches of this West African village searching for buried turtle eggs.
Convenience store plastic bags kill off leatherbacks, which mistake them for jellyfish, while female turtles swimming toward the beach die when they become tangled in fishing nets.
How does Allman, an assistant professor in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Department of Biological Sciences, feel about it?
Optimistic, of course.
“They’re very resilient. They’ve been on earth for a very, very long time,”said Allman, 35, during an interview this past nesting season. “So I’m always optimistic that every little thing we do will make a big impact. If they’ve been able to hang on for this long, then just a little bit of effort will hopefully turn their population trends around.”
His “little bit” is a first-of-its-kind eco-tourism and turtle conservation program in Ghana, whose coastline is better known for slave forts and now, oil exploration. Today, Europeans, Americans and Ghanaians alike are adding turtle walks to their itineraries.
Allman helps persuade villagers that protecting turtles – rather than eating or selling them – is in their economic interest because more tourists mean more business for hotels and restaurants and, consequently, more jobs.
Most people don’t get an opportunity to watch some of Earth’s oldest creatures pull themselves out of the ocean under a star-filled sky – nesting occurs at night – to lay eggs in the sand.
The female turtle digs a circular chamber using her rear flippers. Then she deposits 70 to 150 eggs. Next, the turtle covers the chamber and spends 15 minutes tossing about more sand to disguise it from predators. Satisfied, she returns to the ocean. Hatchlings emerge in about two months and make an immediate run to the water.
“The opportunity to witness a nesting sea turtle is essentially an opportunity to spend an evening walking a tropical beach, possibly in the moonlight with a sea breeze, to look for something that’s very rare and very special,” Allman said.
It’s not something you can watch at places like Sea World.
“To see a sea turtle you just have to work a little harder and there’s this sort of mystery involved with them because it’s not like a dolphin that you see frequently on TV,” he said. “I think that really draws people to the beach.”
Judging by the numbers, he may be on to something.
Sea Turtles 101
Size: Can grow to more than 3 feet in length and about 100 pounds
Appearance: Olive green color, shell has seven vertebral scales running down the middle of the carapace (shell)
Food: Primarily shellfish, snails and slugs
Size: The largest living turtle, it can grow to 8 feet in length and 2,000 pounds
Appearance: Leathery shell with prominent keel running down the center flanked by three more keels on each side; skin typically black with white spots
Food: Jellyfish is their favorite food
Status: Endangered in Atlantic Ocean; critically endangered in the Pacific Ocean
Green Sea Turtle
Size: About 4 feet in length and as much as 440 pounds
Appearance: Shell can range from rusty red-brown to light brown with darker molting; two large oblong preocular scales between their eyes
Food: Primarily herbivorous, feeding on sea grasses and marine algae
Status: Endangered in some parts of the world, threatened in others