What’s Going On?
Right after they hatch, sea turtles migrate hundreds of miles through the open ocean in search of food. For example, loggerhead hatchlings embark in one of their longest migrations across the Atlantic to developmental grounds around the Azores, a chain of islands near Portugal. They grow there for 7-14 years, after which they migrate again to nearshore habitats along the east Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico and other countries, including the Bahamas and Cuba. They can spend 30 years there to mature. Once matured, they migrate from this feeding area to breeding areas found closer to the nesting beaches. They can do this every 2-3 years.
The exact way sea turtles navigate the oceans is unknown, but there are several hypotheses. Some evidence shows that sea turtles can detect the angle and intensity of Earth’s magnetic field, which is similar to how sailors determine latitude and longitude. Other evidence shows that sea turtles imprint themselves on the unique magnetic field of the beach where they are born and use that information to return as adults. This process is called natal imprinting. As Earth’s magnetic signatures change over time, this can cause turtles to change their nesting locations.
Why It Matters
To adequately protect sea turtles and their habitats, we must understand what habitats they migrate to, how the turtles behave when they arrive, and the routes sea turtles use to migrate back and forth. Most sea turtle research takes place on nesting beaches, but sea turtles only spend a small part of their life cycle on nesting beaches. Since they spend 90% of their life cycle in the open ocean, to fully protect sea turtles, we must understand their migration patterns.
What you can do
- Learn as much as you can about sea turtle migration.
- Support sea turtle research and legislation that helps with sea turtle conservation.
- If you live in an area where sea turtles nest, volunteer to help local environmental agencies with sea turtle nesting season.
Information from the Sea Turtle Conservancy and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.