Turtle time

Published January 27, 2015 in MARINE LIFE

Discovering the life and times of Wakatobi’s Sea Turtles

Of the thousands of varieties of marine life you will encounter in the waters of Wakatobi, sea turtles are among the most common. You’ll spot the young ones moving about the inshore sea grass beds, encounter gregarious adolescents munching on sponges on the reef, and often catch sight of a large adult napping under a ledge. Though you might not suspect it based on these predictable sightings, sea turtles are actually a threatened or endangered species throughout much of the world. The good news is that programs such as Wakatobi’s Collaborative Reef Conservation Program, and the resort’s on-site turtle nursery, are giving these ancient mariners now hope for the future.

Young green turtles can often be seen taking a rest at the surface before returning to the bottom to feed on the sea grass beds. Photo by Steve Miller

Young green turtles can often be seen taking a rest at the surface before returning to the bottom to feed on Wakatobi’s sea grass beds. Photo by Steve Miller

Unlike most sea turtles, adult green turtles are herbivorous, feeding on sea grasses and algae. However, juveniles like this baby green who was swimming just off the beach at Wakatobi, will also eat invertebrates like crabs, jellyfish, and sponges. Photo by Steve Miller

Unlike most sea turtles, adult green turtles are herbivorous, feeding on sea grasses and algae. However, juveniles like this baby green who was swimming just off the beach at Wakatobi, will also eat invertebrates like crabs, jellyfish, and sponges. Photo by Steve Miller

With slow and deliberate movements divers and snorkelers can experience close encounters with sea turtles. Photo by Walt Stearns

With slow and deliberate movements divers and snorkelers can experience close encounters with sea turtles. Photo by Walt Stearns

 

Know your turtle

There are two species of turtles you are most likely to meet at Wakatobi: the green and the hawksbill. From a distance, you may not be able to tell one from the other, but when you get close enough to look them in the face, the differences are obvious. True to its name, the hawksbill has a bird-like beak, while the green turtle has a blunt, bullet-shaped head. If you only catch the animal’s back end, and notice a pair of aerated plates bringing up the rear, it’s a hawksbill. The greens have a smoother trailing edge to their shells.

At the smaller end of the scale, the young greens tend to spend more time in the grass beds. They start out life as carnivores, feeding on small crustaceans and invertebrates. Later in life, they add salad to their diet, and start munching on the sea grasses themselves.

If you happen to see a truly large turtle, it’s almost certain to be a green. These animals can grow to lengths of five feet, and reach weights of more than 500 pounds. It takes them about a half century to reach that mark, and they can live to upwards of 100 years. Hawksbill, by comparison, grow to about half that size, and live about half as long. At the smaller end of the scale, the young greens tend to spend more time in the grass beds. They start out life as carnivores, feeding on small crustaceans and invertebrates. Later in life, they add salad to their diet, and start munching on the sea grasses themselves. By contrast, sponges are a favorite of hawksbills, and you are more likely to find them out on the reef enjoying a snack.

Divers will often see green turtles hanging out or sleeping on the reefs, typically on or under a ledge. Photo by Karin van de Wouw

Divers will often see green turtles hanging out or sleeping on the reefs, typically on or under a ledge. Photo by Karin van de Wouw

Sponges are a dietary staple of hawksbill sea turtles, hence why you will see them on the reefs more often than any other species. Photo by Rodger Klein

Sponges are a dietary staple of hawksbill sea turtles, hence why you will see them on the reefs more often than any other species. Photo by Rodger Klein

 

Getting up close

Of the two species common to Wakatobi waters, you are more likely to enjoy a close encounter with a hawksbill, not only because they frequent the same sites as divers, but also because they tend to be less shy, and more tolerant to approach. That said, you will always stand the best chance of getting close by moving in slowly and deliberately. If the turtle is feeding, you may be able to easy your way in for a portrait shot when it stops munching and raises its head. If the turtle is finning along the reef, you can match speed and swim on a parallel course, approaching gradually from the side in a flanking maneuver.

Turtles are actually air-breathing animals. By slowing their heart rate and body functions, they can stay underwater for as long as five hours.

What is never acceptable is making aggressive and intrusive moves that startle the animal and cause it to flee. When an otherwise well-meaning diver becomes over zealous in pursuit, it can stress and alter the animal’s behavior patterns. Turtles are actually air-breathing animals. By slowing their heart rate and body functions, they can stay underwater for as long as five hours. But when they have to expend extra energy–as when being pursued–they may have to surface in a matter of minutes.

This large female hawksbill was spotted scurrying across the sand toward the open ocean after laying eggs on Wakatobi's beach. Photo by Wakatobi Dive Resort

This large female hawksbill was spotted scurrying across the sand toward the open ocean after laying eggs on Wakatobi’s beach. Photo by Wakatobi Dive Resort

 

Protective measures

As stated before, one of the reasons for the relative abundance of sea turtles in the Wakatobi region is the protected status of the surrounding waters. The resort maintains a 20-kilometer stretch of reef as a privately-funded, no-take marine reserve. In addition, turtles get an extra boost from Wakatobi’s turtle nursery program. When a momma turtle comes ashore on the resort’s sandy beaches to lay her eggs, the staff marks and monitors the site. Later, when the youngsters hatch, they are transferred to a nearby holding tank, where they spend the first few months of their life safe from predators. They are then released into the wild when they are several months old, and have a much greater chance of surviving.

So the next time you see a free-swimming sea turtle, go ahead and make a respectful and non-threatening approach to say hi. Just remember to treat these fascinating creatures with respect, and lend your support to programs that will help ensure the long-term health of these animals, not only at Wakatobi, but around the world.

Learn more about sea turtles and Wakatobi’s turtle nursery here.

Ready for a trip to Wakatobi? Contact our office at office@wakatobi.com or complete a quick trip inquiry at wakatobi.com. A guest experience representative will be in touch with you to answer any questions and provide information about your next dream dive vacation.

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