Terrestrial basking

Turtles usually only come ashore to nest. It is rare to see a marine turtle on land otherwise. But it does happen: at certain beaches turtles come ashore to bask in the sun during the day. The only species known to exhibit this unique behaviour is the green turtle. It regularly comes to bask on the beaches of Hawai’i, and there have also been reports of turtles basking in the Galápagos Archipelago and in Western Australia. While basking the turtles will seemingly close their eyes and fall asleep. This creates the unique situation for beach goers to have to share the beach with napping turtles!

The obvious benefit of basking for reptiles is thermoregulation: raising body temperature accelerates metabolic processes like digestion and growth. Being cold-blooded, this is probably the main reason why these green turtle bask and nap on land. A possible added benefit of being on land is the reduction in exposure to marine predators such as tiger sharks. Finally, it could be that staying on land is also more energy-efficient as the turtle does not have to periodically swim to the surface for air. There are turtles that seem to prefer to bask at the same spot every day. On some beaches, tape is placed around the turtles’ favourite sleeping spots to ensure the turtles can rest undisturbed. It is also reported that certain groups of turtles always bask together, like friends. Occasionally Hawaiian monk seals also join the turtles for their nap, like in the pictures below!

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A big thank you to Mark Sullivan for all the great pictures of the turtles with the seals. Check out his great work with Hawaiian monk seal! I also thank Rebecca Scott for the original post idea.

Long-distance migrations

Most sea turtles come back to nest on the beach where they were born. How they do this, is still a mystery.

In their breeding years turtles will migrate from their feeding grounds to their nesting grounds. Before modern technology was available, scientists could only guess how far or where the turtles would go. Nowadays, GPS tags allow us to study the migrating behaviour of sea turtles.

The most common practice is to tag a nesting female turtle by placing a satellite tag on her shell. Out in the ocean, the GPS calculates the geographic position of the turtle every time she surfaces to breath. This information is relayed to the researcher’s computer via satellite. The turtle can be tracked for as long as the tag works, which can be weeks, months, and sometimes even years.

A green sea turtle returning to the sea with a satellite tag on her carapace (photo couretesy of Nicole Esteban)

A green sea turtle returning to the sea with a satellite tag on her carapace
(photo courtesy of Nicole Esteban)

Thanks to satellite telemetry studies, we now know where nesting turtles have their feeding grounds. For example, we now know that some of the turtles nesting on Ascension Island migrate to their feeding grounds in Brazil. This migration is quite a feat, considering that the trip from Brazil to Ascension Island is over 2000 kilometres and the turtles’ destination is a remote island less than twenty kilometres across.

Science has yet to find out how turtles navigate such vast distances. One hypothesis is that they use Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. In fact, a turtle’s ability to navigate the oceans of the world is one that amazed Charles Darwin himself, as shown in his Letter to Nature in 1873:

“Even if we grant to animals a sense of the points of the compass, of which there is no evidence, how can we account, for instance, for the turtles which formerly congregated in multitudes, only at one season of the year, on the shores of the Isle of Ascension, finding their way to that speck of land in the midst of the great Atlantic Ocean?”

Recently, the longest ever published migration for an adult cheloniid (a hard-shelled marine turtle) was recorded: a green turtle swam almost 4000 kilometres from its breeding grounds in Diego Garcia to its feeding grounds off the coast of Somalia!