Celebrities root for reptiles as The Great Turtle Race 2009 begins.

Pearl Jam, REM and Olympic swimmers join forces to help protect leatherbacks on an epic journey

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

An incredible 6,000km swimming race featuring the largest reptiles on earth began April 16, with 11 leatherback turtles competing in Conservation International’s Great Turtle Race - an epic journey from Canada to the Caribbean.

The leatherbacks – creatures which have roamed the earth’s seas since days of the dinosaurs – have been fitted with state-of-the-art satellite transmitters, allowing race fans to follow all the action and learn about what can be done to protect turtles online at www.GreatTurtleRace.org, created in partnership with NationalGeographic.com.

The data that the racing turtles provide is helping conservationists to understand how turtles use different marine environments across their basin-wide range. The Great Turtle Race will raise funds to protect important nesting and feeding habitats and will raise awareness about what we can all do — no matter where we live — to help protect sea turtles and their habitats.

Atlantic leatherback turtles can be found in the waters off Great Britain, Ireland, mainland Europe and Africa as well as the seas surrounding the USA, Canada, South America and the Caribbean. The 11 contenders in the Great Turtle Race were all fitted with satellite transmitters in the waters around Canada by scientists from the Canadian Sea Turtle Network based in Halifax, Nova Scotia , and are racing to reach the Caribbean finish line – the turtles’ nesting grounds – by April 29. They will be cheered on by celebrity sponsors including rock bands Pearl Jam and R.E.M., and ‘coached’ by US Olympic swimmers.

“The magic of the Great Turtle Race is that it puts actual data from migrating sea turtles into a captivating, fun-filled format that draws attention to important biological research and inspires people to act on behalf of ocean conservation,” said CI Vice President Roderic Mast.

“The fate of sea turtles, the global marine environment and humanity itself are inextricably tied to the choices we make today,” said Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, an advocate for saving turtles and their marine habitats. “Pearl Jam is happy to be a part of the Great Turtle Race, and we are encouraging all our fans and friends to join the fun, cheer on our turtle, Backspacer, and help save the seas.”

National Geographic will host the race at www.GreatTurtleRace.org in collaboration with CI. The Great Turtle Race site will feature a map that follows the real journey of each turtle during the two-week race.

Daily updates will feature guest bloggers, such as swimming and surf champions, marine scientists and conservationists. Visitors can also play the Great Turtle Race online game and compete to dominate each week’s leaderboard. The Great Turtle Race coincides with the release of National Geographic magazine’s May issue, which contains a feature article on lea the rback turtles by National Geographic Executive Editor Tim Appenzeller, with photos by award-winning photographer Brian Skerry.

This year’s Great Turtle Race event builds on the success of the first Great Turtle Race in 2007 that featured 11 female leatherbacks making their way from Costa Rica to the Gal├ípagos Islands.

Leatherbacks can weigh more than half a ton, can dive more than a half a mile deep, and have the widest geographic range of any reptile. Currently, leatherbacks, like all sea turtles, are threatened by human actions such as incidental capture in fisheries or “bycatch”, consumption of their eggs, coastal development and ingestion of plastic debris. Leatherback populations have declined dramatically in some parts of the world, such as the eastern Pacific, where their numbers have decreased more than 90 percent over the past two decades.

Mast added: “There’s no time to waste in making responsible decisions that will ensure healthy oceans full of leatherbacks for generations to come.”

Conservation International (CI) applies innovations in science, economics, policy and community participation to protect the Earth’s richest regions of plant and animal diversity and demonstrate that human societies can live harmoniously with nature. Founded in 1987, CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents to help people find economic alternatives without harming their natural environments. For more information about CI, visit www.conservation.org.

Nationalgeographic.com is the award-winning Web site of the National Geographic Society, and attracts more than 12 million unique visitors a month. Nationalgeographic.com combines National Geographic’s video, photography and maps with in-depth information and interactive features about animals, nature, destinations and cultures.

The Great Turtle Race data is made up from information provided by 11 turtles tracked by the Argos satellite service. While data is correct and has been checked, the race is not being held in real time, but has been compressed to allow the movement of the turtles to be followed over a two week period. This is not a sporting event and no bets should be made upon this event.

One of the greatest hazards to the leatherback turtles are plastic bags in their marine environment; those plastic bags that stores give out at every occasion – or at least used to – and that then end up flying about the countryside and finally end up in the sea.

To a turtle those bags, often upside-down floating in the water a little bit like a balloon, look like a jellyfish, one of its favorite prey and they will go and eat the bags, much to their detriment.

The negative impact our actions, inconsiderate actions, have had on the natural environment can best seem in the seas and especially as far as plastic is concerned in that great vortex of many square miles of plastic waste that is swirling around ion the Pacific.

Much of our effort is geared to “combating” Climate change, as if it were a war to be faught and won, and not enough is done in other areas.

© 2009