Many years ago, a magical place existed in the Bahamas, on the island of Eleuthera. This was not a well-known spot nor specifically marked on any maps: a protected bay of turquoise waters, surrounded by gently whistling pine trees, lined with the softest, finest sand imaginable.
There has never been abundant marine life due to a lack of reefs or rock outcrops in the mostly sandy-bottomed bay. Occasionally, a few silversides, a needlefish or two, a small conch, or, during early summer, a few orange cushion sea stars would hang out. For the most part, the waters were quiet, tranquil even.
The sheltered setting and the occasional patches of sea grass provided an ideal, temporary haven for green sea turtles on their journey from birth beach to the pelagic ocean environment. Juvenile and sub-adult green sea turtles used to flitter about in the shallow waters—the only species to reliably visit in relative abundance. Paddleboarding was a great way to see their small heads pop up before zipping away.
Marine Wildlife Tourism
Word got around, and tour boats started coming to bring tourists. Seeing sea turtles in the wild is awe-inspiring. Swimming with sea turtles is even more thrilling. Visitors are willing to pay a lot for this experience, and business is booming. Some local fishermen have become turtle tour guides, wanting their share of this lucrative venture.
After hearing comments and concerns over the well-being of the local green turtle population, I decided to check things out for myself. My friend Jan and I swam closer to see what the tourists were doing and to get some images of the human-turtle interactions. We observed turtle feeding, turtle touching, and even turtle handling by tourists who’d come to enjoy the show.
The previously shy turtles hung around and allowed themselves to be handled, even jostled for the food. When the squid ran out, the turtles left the area that was humming with power boat noise and headed our way. They seemed to aim for our hands as they approached, likely hoping for more Snickers bars, err… squid.
I was caught off guard by the ensuing melee, as six or seven turtles jostled for proximity. The turtles pushed each other out of the way, ran into us with their hard, rough flippers, and finally, one chomped down on my toe. Ouch!! It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that another one bit me on the side of the other foot. Ungh! I’d seen enough.
The Green’s Lifecycle
An enigmatic species, sea turtles are known for their graceful movements and the beautiful markings on their shells (carapaces). These unique species have been around for millions of years but are now considered endangered due to hunting, habitat destruction, and environmental changes.
Green sea turtles are herbivores as adults, preferring seagrass, algae, and other plants. As such, they are vital components of the shallow marine ecosystem, helping to balance and maintain healthy seagrass beds and other shallow coastal habitats.
The turtles’ sharp, serrated beaks chomp down on plant matter, which is swallowed whole. Bacteria and similar microorganisms in the turtles’ stomachs ferment and break down the cellulose, making nutritious chlorophyll, vitamins, and minerals available.
Pollution and habitat loss have led to a decline in healthy food sources and, by extension, the distribution of healthy turtles.
The Folly (and Consequences) of Feeding Sea Turtles
Feeding wildlife, any wildlife, can disrupt their natural feeding behavior. It encourages dependence on human food and alters natural feeding patterns. If this occurs regularly and to the degree that the wildlife prefers human food, malnutrition and a variety of health issues may ensue.
From hatchling until juvenile, green sea turtles are omnivores, but as they mature, their diet shifts toward sea grass, algae, and seaweed. Provisioning the turtles with fatty squid at that stage can have consequences beyond digestive and health issues. Turtles may experience severe growth spurts and delayed mating behavior.
Frequent proximity and a lack of fear of power boats can lead to injury and death. It can also expose the turtles to toxins and other pollutants.
Wildlife experiences stress like us but can’t voice their fear. Being fed might not be mentally stressful (just physically very unhealthy) but being handled and pulled out of the water certainly is. Research has shown that sea turtles that are exposed to human handling suffer from (stress-induced) immunosuppression. This, in turn, makes the turtles more prone to diseases like fibropapillomatosis (characterized by debilitating tumors), the occurrence of which has, in recent years, increased dramatically.
When sea turtles lose their natural fear of humans, encounters become more aggressive, possibly leading to dangerous interactions. My toe could have been a small child’s finger. The turtle could have been bigger and more aggressive. The bite could have gone to the bone.
Humans are predators as far as sea turtles are concerned. Once the turtles lose their natural fears, they’ll become increasingly vulnerable to well-meaning but misguided humans and to less well-meaning, hungry predators like sharks.
Sea turtles and all wildlife should not be approached but observed from a respectful distance and left to care for themselves naturally to remain healthy and safe.