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Tides and turtles

The Queen Charlotte-Galapagos connection

By Jack Souther, Whistler Naturalists

To the Natives they are Haida Gwaii, Islands-of-the-people. In 1774 Captain George Dixon named them after his ship the S.S. Queen Charlotte. To poets they are the Misty Isles, while many naturalists, impressed by the uniqueness and diversity of species, refer to them as the Canadian Galapagos. Both the Charlottes and Galapagos are biological refugia where species have evolved in relative isolation. But the casual visitor will see more differences than similarities, and very few direct links. For me the link was a giant green sea turtle.

I was doing shoreline geology on Moresby Island in the southern Charlottes. It was an El Niño year and the algal bloom had produced an ugly red tide the colour and consistency of Campbell's Tomato Soup. The sea was alive with the pulsing bodies of Lion's Mane jellyfish trailing their two-metre tangle of stinging tentacles. The tide was out and as we rounded a rocky headland in our Zodiac there it was – the body of a giant sea turtle. The eyes were still bright, the flippers still flexible. It couldn't have died more than a few hours or at most a day before we discovered it lying incongruously among the kelp and starfish of the northern B.C. coast.

The discovery brought back a flood of images from my other encounters with sea turtles in the Galapagos. Not being a great swimmer I was merely a spectator to the playful antics of sea lions and penguins, but the turtles I could swim with. We both moved at the same rate with a slow deliberate breast stroke just below the surface.

On another occasion we happened on a beach where newly hatched turtles were emerging from their nests. The eggs, laid and buried in the sand above tide line weeks earlier, had been incubated by the sun. Now, suddenly, as though some internal voice had yelled "GO!" they were all hatching at once – launching hundreds of tiny, clumsy hatchlings on their perilous dash across the beach to the sea. Few made it. A dozen or more Frigate Birds picked them off in a wild airborne feeding-frenzy. In the end we took a few to our boat and released them after dark. Maybe some survived?

As I examined the huge body of the dead turtle I wondered where it started its journey – probably not the Galapagos. But somewhere hundreds of miles south of the Charlottes, 50, 100 – who knows how many years ago, it ran the gauntlet from a nest on some tropical beach to the sea, matured, and with its slow, deliberate breast stroke followed the warm El Niño tides north to Moresby Island.

Why it died there will never be known for sure but it could simply have been a plastic bag floating in the water. Sea turtles feed mainly on jellyfish and often confuse the two. I learned later that ingesting plastic is a major cause in the death of mature marine turtles. Sadly there is a lot of plastic in our B.C. waters.

Sightings and Memberships: NatureSpeak is prepared by the Whistler Naturalists. To become a member or to report noteworthy sightings of mammals, birds, or other species, contact Lee Edwards (905-6448; e-mail: leighe11@hotmail.com).

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