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Vegetarian Ninjas and Irish Leatherbacks

Image credit: L. Duignan 2010

Like some of our larger and finer marine species at home, the Pacific green turtle is vegetarian, or more accurately, turns so upon reaching its teenage years. It also becomes increasingly more relaxed, almost indifferent, at this later stage of its life. Whether the two are related is doubtful, but in any case it an easy animal to spend time with, facing adversities such as camera brandishing marine biologists with an almost lethargic nonchalance.

Here, the might of the Ecuadorian National Park authorities is proving greater than any Pacific swell in keeping our ship in port. We should be at sea now, carrying out surveys of threatened marine algae species, but permits and an endless tide of bureaucracy which serves no-one, least of all conservation science, means we wait.

It’s not a bad place to wait however, and daily trips underwater to brush up on our identification skills of the local species and carry out pilot surveys keep us occupied and photo-full. It’s not too far from our project brief either, to spend time taking shots of and writing about these attractive reptiles. They gather in inshore bays in these islands to reproduce and be one of the more appealing grazers of the threatened algae that we study. Everyone likes turtles, so grant applications and funding requests for studies of ‘boring’ species such as seaweeds invariably feature any link that can be made to an animal that once only appeared on our screens and in our mindsets after the adjectives ‘teenage mutant ninja’.

As might be guessed from its name, we won’t be seeing the Pacific green ninja turtle vegging out a Mayo bay anytime soon. On the other hand, a turtle which is facing extinction over here in the Pacific has been increasingly shown to be more than just a casual visitor to Irish waters.  Leatherback turtles were always thought of as wayward drifters to Irish, and very frequently Mayo, inshore territory. It has become increasingly realised however that the number of turtles and frequency of sightings means we should start thinking of them more as one of our own species; a semi-resident migrant to Ireland rather than a lost traveller.

The same logic doesn’t apply to humans however and strict immigration laws mean we have to be out of here in a matter of weeks. Leatherbacks aren’t as easily encountered in Ireland, usually just sporadically seen by fishermen far from land. But it would make an interesting challenge for the rest of summer 2010; swim with a turtle in our own back yard.

This article was published in the July 6th edition of The Mayo News

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