Wednesday, December 4, 2002
San Francisco (CA) Chronicle
Rare sea turtle finds sunshine in Marin
Warm-water reptile comes ashore at Tomales Bay
Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday,
December 4, 2002
A giant sea turtle ambled out of the chilly
waters of Tomales Bay on Thanksgiving to the
amazement of several witnesses and sunned itself
on a beach near Inverness, thousands of miles
from its normal habitat in Mexico and Costa Rica.
The adult turtle, weighing an estimated 75
pounds, emerged from the water directly in front
of one of the Bay Area's few sea turtle
biologists, who happened to be at Shell Beach
that day with his family.
"I said, 'Oh my God, it's a sea turtle!' "
recounted Reuven Walder, a biologist with the
Turtle Island Restoration Network, which focuses
on sea turtle and salmon conservation. "It was
absolutely remarkable. Here we were just sitting
on the beach, and the sea turtle just hauled out
in front of us thousands of miles from its normal
range. We were beside ourselves."
The creature, officially known as an olive ridley
sea turtle, moseyed a little ways up the beach
and plopped down as Walder stood, mouth agape,
fumbling for his camera.
He managed to snap about 25 pictures before the
turtle shuffled back into the water and swam off,
as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Marine experts struggled Tuesday to come up with
an explanation for the reptile's strange odyssey.
MAYBE OFF COURSE
Martin Haulena, the staff veterinarian for the
Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands, said
it probably just got off course. He said the cold
water would have slowed the sea turtle's heart
rate and put the animal in a shutdown state
called "cold-stunning," allowing it to survive
for weeks, even months, while drifting with the
currents. He said the turtle probably hoped to
thaw out a bit when it waddled up on Shell Beach.
The sighting was all the more unusual because
olive ridleys are listed as endangered under the
U.S. Endangered Species Act, according to Todd
Steiner, director of the restoration network.
He said the reptiles, which grow 2 1/2 feet long
and reach 100 pounds, are one of the seven
species of sea turtle and are normally seen in
warmer waters to the south. During the mating
season between July and December, hundreds of
thousands of them crowd onto beaches along the
coast of Mexico and Costa Rica to nest, an event
known in Spanish as the arribada, or arrival.
SUBJECT TO PREY
Their nesting habits, however, made them easy
prey for those who would kill them for their
skins. Steiner said as many as 75,000 turtles a
year were being killed before laws were passed to
prevent the practice. Their numbers were also
greatly reduced by development.
Steiner, whose organization was instrumental in
closing down a sea turtle slaughterhouse in the
state of Oaxaca in 1990, said leatherback turtles
have been seen in Monterey and around the
Farallones, but even that species rarely comes
out of the water unless it is nesting.
"It is incredibly unusual," Steiner said of the
Shell Beach incident, which was witnessed by
several swimmers and hikers as well. "If Reuven
hadn't had those photographs, I'm not sure I
would have believed it."
Such sightings, however, are not unheard of,
Haulena said. He said the Marine Mammal Center
has found 16 sea turtles, half of them dead,
along the Northern California coast over the past
The dead ones were mostly leatherbacks, but he
said the others included rare green and olive
ridley sea turtles. Some of the living ones were
found in Marin County and north of there.
"There is something wrong with them, obviously,
because they are stranded, and we think it is
because they've gotten themselves into water that
is too cold," Haulena said. "It's not really
normal for them to haul out, around here
EL NINO FACTOR?
Steiner and Walder said unusual current patterns
caused by what many meteorologists are predicting
will be another El Nino winter may also be a
factor. Barracudas and other tropical fish have
been found in Northern California waters during
previous El Ninos.
But Steiner said the odd appearance could have
been caused by almost anything.
"The animal may just be confused," he said.
"Another explanation is that this is Sinbad the
explorer turtle who went out to explore new areas
The water was about 55 degrees over the weekend,
"pretty cold for a turtle, " Steiner said, but
marine biologists, state and federal park rangers
were nevertheless keeping their eyes open
Tuesday, hoping for another sighting.