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The Galapagos Islands – Turtles

The Galapagos Islands’ geographical location and national park status has allowed them to become a haven for a diverse array of plant and animal life. Visiting the Galapagos is like taking a trip to a world before humans existed. Far away from the modern mainland of Ecuador, the Galapagos are stuck in a time warp that sees wildlife flourish. The unique plant life and wildlife that exist on the Islands are mostly endemic, which means they only exist on the Galapagos Islands. The archipelago is one of the world’s greatest snorkelling destinations, where legends of the ocean can be spotted close to the surface. Amongst them is the Galapagos green turtle, the only species of sea turtle that inhabits the Islands.

The green sea turtle is one of seven species of sea turtle and is the second largest after the leatherback. They can reach up to four feet (1.2m) in length and weigh up to 500 lbs (225kg). That is more than three times heavier than the average man! Unlike most sea turtles, adult green sea turtles are herbivores. The jaw is serrated to help the turtle easily chew its primary food source – seagrass and algae. Juvenile green sea turtles are omnivores. They eat a wide variety of plant and animal life, including insects, crustaceans, seagrass, and worms.

The name of the green sea turtle is derived not from the colour of its shell (which is normally brown or olive), but for the greenish colour of its skin. It is the only species to come on shore regularly to bask in the sun. The Galapagos Islands is one of the only locations in the world where basking occurs. Green sea turtles are believed to improve the health of seagrass beds and associated microhabitats. They will graze the beds, taking off the tops of leaf blades, while avoiding the roots. The seagrass grows healthier and faster with a daily trim!

Green sea turtles, like other species, undertake lengthy migrations from feeding sites to nesting grounds, which are normally on sandy beaches. Mating occurs every two to four years and normally takes place in shallow waters close to the shore. To nest, females leave the sea at night and choose an area, often on the same beach used by their mothers, to lay their eggs. They dig a pit in the sand with their back flippers and lay between 50 and 200 eggs prior to making their way back to the ocean before the sun rises. The eggs are incubated in the tropical heat for 45-55 days. The gender of the hatchlings will depend on the temperature the eggs are kept (females occurring at hotter temperatures).

The most dangerous time of a green turtle’s life is when it makes the journey from nest to sea. As soon as they break their shell they are plunged into a fight for survival. Predators come from every angle. Crabs, hawks, Gulls, Cormorants, Albatrosses and countless other animals of prey join the feeding frenzy, while the hatchlings make a dash towards sea. But their struggle doesn’t stop there… On the off chance they make it to the water, sharks and frigatebirds await to continue the onslaught. For the few who are successful, their life is only just beginning, and they face a battle to survive and grow until between 26 and 40 years old when they become mature. Green turtles are long-lived and could live for at least 70 years or more. One of the oldest known green sea turtles is still going strong at the age of 90.

Sea turtles can be spotted in the waters around every Galapagos Island. Two of the largest nesting sites are found at Bachas Beach (Santa Cruz Island) and Punta Cormorant (Floreana island). They can be seen throughout the year, however, December to March is when pregnant females may be seen around the shores waiting for night to lay their eggs. Because the Galapagos was so isolated for so long, the wildlife never developed a fear of humans. In the Amazon, it’s nearly impossible to see large animals such as a jaguar, whereas in the Galapagos you need to watch your step, or you may inadvertently tread on native wildlife! This means you can get up close and personal with these legends of the ocean, giving you a unique opportunity to witness them in all their glory.

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