What sea turtles can teach us about survival
Can we keep them as pets?” A participant asked, when Ramon “Toby” Tamayo, a civic leader, community mobilizer, and citizen scientist from San Juan, La Union, recently gave an animated online talk in The Filipino SDG Action Hour about hundreds of sea turtles that have ascended the beaches of San Juan, La Union to lay hundreds of eggs. Toby explained that sea turtles need the sea to survive, and to recreate the sea and seawater in an aquarium in one’s living room requires tedious effort to keep a pet marine turtle. There might be a bigger chance that the freshwater forest turtle can be kept as a pet but, then again, they are not the giant, lovable, majestic sea turtles we call the pawikan. The green turtle can reach 4 feet in length and weigh up to 660 pounds.
The good news, however, is that you do not have to own them to enjoy them. They are part of the sea, and a compelling excuse to go to the sea to observe them when they come ashore. The sense of wonderment they bring is equally strong for both adults and their kids, for how many adults would have had the chance to see sea turtles come ashore to lay eggs, or when the hatchlings emerge from the sand and race to the sea 60 days later?
Pawikans are fascinating to watch. But they are also good for science learning, empathizing, and particularizing the effects of climate change. For instance, we know that a sea turtle lays up to 100 eggs, the warm sand being their “incubator” for about 60 days. Scientists tell us the temperature of the sand determines whether a baby turtle will be male or female—cooler sand produces more males while warmer sand produces more females. They call this “temperature-dependent sex determination.”
Now you ask the kids to reflect while observing sea turtles—how might warming trends due to climate change affect the genetic diversity not only of turtles but other reptiles like alligators and crocodiles?
I am also fascinated by their lessons in military science. Baby turtles hatch at the same time, with military precision, then race to the sea en masse past waiting predators which will manage to eat many, but not all of them. They are natural experts at “patintero.” Sea turtles seemingly have a statistical survival frame of mind—ensuring that they lay enough eggs so that while many will be eaten, some will survive. One turtle can lay from six to 10 clutches with one clutch containing between 80 and 180 eggs.
The memory written into their DNA makes them come back to the same beaches that have been sanctuaries and nurseries for their eggs for thousands of years. These beaches have always been populated with predators—humans and other animals.
But what happens when humans start modifying beaches and removing the sand? Naic and Ternate are reported to be among the coastlines where sand is vanishing from where turtles traditionally lay their eggs. Well, new airports need to be built in nearby Sangley Point and Bulacan and new cities need a mindboggling 21,000 hectares to be reclaimed from Manila Bay.
Pawikans are part of our community—global and local. They are “ours” for the brief time that they are in our care, but when they roam the vast West Philippine Sea and other waters and come face to face with marine harvesters of various nationalities, including our own, they are in grave danger.
Sea turtles give humans the sterling lesson of survival that works for them and should work for humans as well. Even knowing the harsh odds, we should continue producing community volunteers, racing to the sea of civic troubles and social turbulence, for tiny opportunities for heroism. These opportunities exist all over the archipelago. With every citizen equipped with a cell phone, the citizenry has a tremendous capacity for scientific observation, reporting, and activism.
Learning to save sea turtles is a mechanism for learning about our own survival. This is understood by various local communities who are now practicing and rewarding local heroism, one sea turtle at a time.
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