Great Turtle Race Mixes Competition, Conservation

April 16, 2009

Eleven leatherback sea turtles virtually splashed into the chilly waters off Canada's Atlantic coast today to start a grueling, more-than-3,700-mile (6,000-kilometer) race to the Caribbean.

The competitors are taking part in the Great Turtle Race, essentially a sped-up online replay of the actual migration, which ended in March.

Today's launch "is sort of an instant replay," said Bryan Wallace, a sea turtle scientist with Conservation International, which is co-hosting the Great Turtle Race with the National Geographic Society.

(The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"We've compressed [the six-month migration] into a time period of two weeks."

The turtles were each equipped with satellite tags to track their positions and collect data about their environment. Information from the tags is being displayed on an online map so race fans can watch the turtles' progress.

"For a turtle to win, it will have to enter an area that we know leatherbacks go to when they are ready to mate," Wallace said.

For now, the winning turtle's name is a closely guarded secret. When the winner is announced on April 29, project scientists will provide updates on what the turtles have been up to since the migration's end.

Race for a Cause

The Great Turtle Race, first run in 2007, is meant to raise awareness of leatherback behaviors and threats.

All sea turtles are threatened by human activities such as fishing, pollution, coastal development, egg harvests, and other maladies, Wallace noted.

Leatherback sea turtles are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Data collected from the racing turtles' tags will help scientists better understand sea turtle biology, allowing them to make more informed conservation recommendations, event organizers say.

(Related: "Rare Leatherback Turtles Gain Protection in Costa Rica.")

The cause has attracted a variety of celebrity sponsors, including the rock bands Pearl Jam and R.E.M., which are each backing a racing turtle.

The turtles are also being "coached" by Olympic swimmers such as Amanda Beard and Eric Shanteau. NBC announcer Rowdy Gaines is providing official race commentary.

Conservation International's Wallace has his eye on the unsponsored turtle Sea Biscuit, named after the Depression-era racehorse. He also favors the colossal turtle Wawa Bear, whose migration habits are well known.

"Knowing she's pretty experienced makes her a compelling story," he said.

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