by Whit Gibbons

June 19, 2011

I recently read this statement in a book: "We no longer have the luxury of eating sea turtles and their eggs, of making jewelry out of their shells and leather out of their skin." According to the author, too many humans populate the earth for sea turtles to ever again be harvested in a sustainable fashion.

The plight of the seven species of sea turtles alive in the world today is set forth by James R. Spotila in a 216-page book, "Saving Sea Turtles" (2011, Johns Hopkins University Press). The book's subtitle is "Extraordinary Stories from the Battle against Extinction." Spotila provides accounts of various environmental threats sea turtles have faced. Myriad problems that threaten the very survival of individual turtles and some species can be attributed to humans, including poachers, developers and politicians. Many of Spotila's stories relate how other humans, including conservation biologists, sea turtle ecologists and politicians, have intervened to save these magnificent creatures of the sea from destruction.

Spotila writes in an easy, highly readable style, without the flowery emotional flourishes that some sea turtle enthusiasts resort to. He lets the facts tell the story. The book is well organized, with the first chapter addressing the status of sea turtles in the modern world and pointing out the contemporary problems they face. He identifies the challenge that every sea turtle faces from the outset—to successfully hatch from an egg laid on a beach. In one part of the first chapter he focuses on turtle egg poachers. He refers to the poachers as people with "an undersized heart." Poachers will steal eggs right out of a nest on the beach where a turtle biologist is doing a study. This practice is no longer an "I need food for my family" operation; it is commerce. For example, the author caught a poacher one night in Costa Rica with almost 500 sea turtle eggs. "Guess he had a big family," Spotila says.

The second chapter, "Life in the Egg: Buried Alive under Two Feet of Sand," goes through the vital steps of how an embryo develops within the egg until it hatches. The book explains the importance of temperature in determining the sex of a baby turtle and what besides small-hearted poachers are threats to nests. The remaining chapters are in life cycle order, from hatchlings racing to the sea, to life as a juvenile turtle, to the adult female returning to a beach to nest.

Much of the book uses examples of leatherback sea turtles, the largest turtles in the world and the species Jim Spotila has fought tirelessly to save from annihilation. These giants are so large that if one were stood on end in a normal-size room, the turtle's head would poke through the ceiling. These enormous turtles have been known to travel into the ice-cold waters of polar seas, indicating that they can survive at least short periods of freezing weather. They may then travel to the equator and nest on a tropical beach. The hazards they face—from an egg on a beach where people and predators roam, to a hatchling swimming past sharks in an ocean, to a nesting female trying to find a safe beach to crawl onto—are many. But the primary threat to all sea turtles are not natural conditions around the world that the species have successfully navigated through for millions of years. The principal threat comes from people, as detailed many times in this book.

The stories capture the essence of how dedicated people must be involved to carry out a sustainable effort to conserve this identifiable group of species. By writing a book about what is involved in saving sea turtles, Jim Spotila has augmented his own already substantial efforts by helping keep the conservation process alive. Sea turtles may never be a sustainable resource that can be harvested, but the author shows that with the right attitudes we can at least ensure they will be around for us to enjoy for decades to come.

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