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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


Trustee: Galapagos Conservation Trust
18 Curzon Street, London, W 17 7AD
Tel: 0 171 - 629 5049 Fax: 0 171 - 629 4149
e-mail: chris.mcfarling{at}
Presented at the BCG Symposium at the University of Bristol, 24th April 1999.

In 1983 1 saw my first wild turtle. It was swimming through the blue pacific waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands. A sense of joy came over me as 1 watched it, spaceship like, gliding silently on its own, effortlessly passing through the waters on its own way to? well who knows?

Subsequent dives revealed greater numbers of these ancient reptiles and on some wonderful occasions 1 saw maybe 8- 10 individuals at a time, counting maybe 60 or 70 during half an hour underwater. I learnt to approach them carefully from behind and underneath, scrutinising their plastrons as they suspected my presence. I admit 1 even rode them, clinging on to the front of their carapaces, a turtle pulling each arm, as they took off almost 'turbo-charged' by the immense pulling power of their fore-flippers. I watched them swim. 1 saw them sleep on rocky ledges almost oblivious to the onlooker. 1 saw them mate, several male suitors queuing up for the receptive females who would swim, dragging the copulating male around with them as some tiresome, large barnacle spoiling their hydrodynamic form. Mating would commonly occur in sheltered, mangrove lagoons; the silent, heavy tropical evenings punctuated by hisses of expelled air as females (and presumably the males) broke the surface to catch some air. Occasionally 1 would see a turtle almost on the beach, out of the surf zone. Here they would bask, taking in the equatorial sun and rest.

Perhaps most magical of all was to see the hatchlings emerge from their nests and, like tiny clockwork toys, run for their lives down to the sea where, presumably they wouldn't emerge for another 20 - 30 years. When sexual maturity had caught up with them and mating had taken place, they would pull themselves up that beach once more to lay their clutch o eggs and continue a cycle which had been going on for millions of years.They became my favourite animals; quite an accolade considering the Galapagos has many weird and wonderful animal characters competing for that title. 1 developed a passion for these gentle creatures, which helped forge the conservationist in me.I now give slide-shows to children in school and wonder whether they will ever see a turtle in the wild when they grow up. So why the doom and gloom? I'll try to explain.

The Galapagos islands are protected by law as are the waters surrounding the archipelago. Although 4 different species of turtle have been sighted in Galapagos, the Leatherback, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley are passing tourists, rarely, if ever, nesting here. This leaves only the Green turtle (or black turtle or even yellow turtle depending on whom you talk to and what you read).

In Archie Carr's seminal book The Sea Turtle - So Excellent a Fishe, written in 1967, he comments on an interesting conversation with a Mrs. Carmen Angermeyer, where she explained that she observed two kinds of turtles in Galapagos - a dark kind which nested locally and another which didn't seem to nest in Galapagos but was referred to as a yellow turtle on account of its general light appearance. The most important distinction she made was that when butchered, the yellow kind produced 6-8 times more oil than its black cousin did.

When 1 asked her to recount her turtle encounters she remarked positively on how the world had changed and that the islanders were no longer allowed to use these animals as meat. She acknowledged that this was now a good thing as the population of Galapagos had grown exponentially and we would soon run out! Of interest, was the observation that yellow turtles built up fat deposits and basked on the beaches in Galapagos, presumably to prepare for longer migrations to their nesting sites - a minimum distance of 650 miles eastward to the mainland coast of Ecuador and Columbia. [Westwards from Galapagos, the trip to the nearest beach would cover 3000 miles].The black turtles, nesting locally and not building up these reserves might indeed be a resident population, which raises some interesting conservation possibilities.

The early tagging experiments made by Derek Green and his colleagues during the 1970s showed that the Green Turtles of Galapagos do indeed migrate to the coast of the South American mainland. Tags were kindly returned from the butchered animals where the traditional turtle industry collected hundreds and thousands. The industry is virtually non-existent now - a turtle sighting along the mainland coast is a rare observation indeed.

The international fishing industry has made its impression on the turtle populations though no statistics are available. Huge nets, kilometres in length were used to great effect in the East Pacific, catching tuna and, inevitably, thousands of air-breathing creatures who could not escape the drowning. The fishing fleets came into Galapagos waters, with seine nets seen barely 500 metres from the rocky island shores. An outcry from the international community prompted the government of Ecuador to act and the culmination of much political debate allowed the creation of a marine park to be formed. Prohibition of major industrial fishing within 40 miles from the islands needs enforcement, but will be a small step towards protecting the underwater world around this land from being completely cleaned up of its wildlife treasures.

And then there's the litter problem. Utter in the form of plastic bags has been mistakenly eaten by the turtles, believing that these bags were their favourite food - jellyfish. Alas, the plastic would block their digestive systems and, weak from hunger, the animals would clamber onto the beaches to be burnt alive by the equatorial sun. 1 regularly found such poor creatures along Galapagos beaches in various states of decomposition - the plastic remaining, as it will do, for another 500 years.

The Galapagos Islands would appear to be a natural sanctuary for turtles as both land and sea are protected. 97% of the land is a national park (no one is allowed in the park at night, which is when most turtles are nesting) and the seas are now given protective status. However, introduced animals have devastated the fragile ecosystems. Pigs on Santiago Island would regularly dig up the nests of turtles to feed on the eggs. At one of the best nesting sites - Espumilia beach pigs had been observed gobbling up the eggs even as they were being dropped into the egg chamber; the female turtle oblivious to this tragic intervention. Once the females started laying they are not easily disturbed, their skittishness being more acute whilst they make their way up the beach to nest.

So hence the doom and gloom.

There are currently no specific turtle research projects going on in Galapagos. Derek Green has still not published his book on Galapagos turtles 16 years after completing his last research project - problems with the publisher. Where does that leave us? What chances do our grandchildren have of enjoying the experience of seeing turtles swimming freely in Galapagos waters? No chance if one logically follows mankind's race towards the Malthusian principle - where the expanding human population meets diminishing world resources.

Conservationists are made of sterner stuff. Indeed we all need to be conservationists of sorts to survive for we depend on nature to live. Roderic Mast gave a keynote address at the 18th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation in Mazatlan, Mexico in March 1998. As part of the common sense conservation he wisely advocates, he suggests that we must get to know our animals - we know woefully little about these creatures. Conservation research of turtles must focus on discovering:

  • What are the survival rates in the wild?
  • What is the long-term reproductive success?
  • What are the rates and variability of recruitment?
  • What are the real population sizes and how are they distributed?

We need to be careful when 'managing' nature. Even with the best intentions, our lack of knowledge can have detrimental effects. Protection, letting nature take care of itself, has always been one solution, but it takes great courage to allow the time necessary for this to happen without meddling.

In Galapagos, the biggest conservation project is underway - education. Changing people's attitudes and beliefs towards their natural heritage provides the greatest potential for saving what's left. Litter clear-ups are made by guides and tourists at every beach they visit. The seas are better protected and patrols are taking place. The pigs have nearly all been eliminated from Santiago.The mangrove lagoons are being allowed to grow back after their deforestation at the hands of the seacucumber fishermen. And the potential residency of a significant part of the Eastern Pacific Green turtle species provides us with a good, viable core population which may well survive until our grandchildren can become proper stewards of these wonderful creatures and the seas they live in.

If you are unsure about what to do, do something - it's better than nothing. Keep going if you have already started. If we all contribute and act in a small way as conservationists, together we can change our only world.


Mast, Roderic. Guest Editorial: Common Sense Conservation. IN: Marine Turtle Newsletter.20 Issue Number 83, January 1999

Carr, Archie. The Sea Turtle - So Excellent a Fishe. 1967 University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, USA.

Testudo Volume Five Number One 1999