This baby turtle surprised scientists by swimming against the current

In 2008, I had just begun volunteering at Equilibrio Azul — a non-profit marine-research and -conservation organization based in Quito — when colleagues discovered a hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) nesting at La Playita beach in Ecuador. The eastern Pacific population of hawksbill sea turtles is one of the most endangered in the world and was considered functionally extinct in the region before this turtle and others were observed.

That discovery was a tipping point for hawksbill research in Ecuador and throughout the Pacific Ocean. Since 2008, we’ve found about 20 nests each year at La Playita, and one season, we documented 50.

We have tagged 11 adult females with satellite transmitters. Previously, most of our understanding of these turtles had been based on observations in the Caribbean, where the reptiles are strictly coral-reef dwellers. But Ecuador’s reefs are mostly rocky, with patches of coral, and we were surprised to see females migrate south to mangroves, mainly for food.

In this image, we have just attached a transmitter to a baby turtle — a first for hawksbill turtles this young and in the eastern Pacific region. We did not know much about hawksbills at this young age. It is tricky working with baby turtles, because they grow very fast, and the transmitters, which give us location data, can easily fall off. We’ve used cement to glue the devices to the shells of six newborns so far. The longest the transmitters have lasted is three months and the shortest period was only six weeks — but the devices provided our first insights into the ‘lost years’ of sea-turtle biology.

Our findings have overturned assumptions that neonates were just carried along by currents. Instead, we found that one-day-old turtles can swim against the current. They aim for a specific direction — north by northwest — as they learn to dive and swim. We tracked one-year-old hawksbills to Costa Rican waters, a journey of roughly 2,000 kilometres, before we lost their signal.

Cristina Miranda is a scientific coordinator at Equilibrio Azul in Quito, Ecuador. Interview by Virginia Gewin.

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