Endangered Turtles Swim Pacific in Race
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Eleven leatherback turtles are swimming across the Pacific Ocean to the Galapagos Islands in a "race" that will be tracked online to draw attention to the plight of the endangered creatures.
The turtles have been tagged with satellite communication devices that give their positions as they head south from their nesting sites on Costa Rica's Playa Grande beach to feeding grounds near the Galapagos, about 950 miles away.
Online participants can choose a turtle and track its course at www.greatturtlerace.com from April 16 with the winner being the animal that travels furthest in two weeks of swimming.
There is no prize for the winner of the race, aimed at highlighting the dangers facing a creature that has graced the oceans for 100 million years.
"It's fascinating to consider that we are able to bring together these prehistoric animals with such cutting-edge science," said Stanford University researcher George Shillinger, one of the race organizers.
Environmentalists say 95 percent of leatherbacks in the Pacific Ocean have vanished in the last 20 years due to human activity like fishing, poaching of their eggs and building near their nests, and they could become extinct in the next decade.
Thousands of leatherbacks nested at Playa Grande 10 years ago but the number has dropped to below 100 in the last five years.
Leatherbacks, which can reach a shell length of 1.7 meter (5.6 feet) and a mass of 700 kg (1,540 lb), often die after being entangled in fishing lines and nets. Others choke on plastic bags, wrongly believing they are jellyfish, which are a delicacy for turtles.
The Galapagos Islands, which lie west of Ecuador, are home to hundreds of unique species, including giant tortoises, exotic birds and iguanas. The variety of natural life there inspired 19th century British naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.
The leatherback race will not be live because the turtles left Costa Rica at different times. Instead, environmentalist group Conservation International will provide a day-to-day showing of the first 14 days of their journeys simultaneously as if they were racing.
The event will raise funds to protect Playa Grande. It is being organized by Conservation International, Costa Rica's Environment Ministry, the Leatherback Trust and the Tagging of Pacific Predators program.