The ancient mariners of the sea, sea turtles are mysterious creatures that are extremely difficult to study. Dive in with Christian Vizl as he examines the gentle mating rituals of the sea turtle.
It was the summer of 2012, when I went looking for new and unexplored photo opportunities. It was then that I decided to venture into the open ocean and see what surprises this cerulean temptation may have prepared for me. First, I discovered that if I went far enough from the coast (about eight to 16 kilometres), I could always find crystal clear blue water.
Soon enough, I also realised that encounters with sea turtles were very frequent. They are easily spotted because they usually float at the surface. Obviously, I eventually started to approach them, albeit with great care. I learned that each one of them has a very particular personality, which doesn’t make it easy to loom in closer. The vast majority are very shy and as soon as you start getting too close, they rapidly disappear, taking a plunge into the deep blue. But there are others who will not freak out and stay, so if you are patient and persistent, great encounters can happen.
After many failed attempts, my very first encounter in the open ocean with one of these magnificent animals finally transpired. I entered the water at an approximate distance of six metres and very slowly started swimming towards the turtle. I was so happy and excited because she allowed me to get really close! Then, as soon as the initial shock of being alone in the middle of the ocean and so close to a huge and beautiful sea turtle passed, I started taking my first pictures.
For the first 15 minutes, I approach her very slowly and very gently and she was very gently and very slowly avoiding me. But then, she became curious and was the one who slowly and gently started to swim towards me. She came so close, to the point of touching me, that the roles got inverted and I was the one who slowly and gently started to swim away from her! It was a magical half an hour, being in the pres-ence of each other in a completely wild environment; we could each leave any time we wanted, but we both chose to hang around each other. In the end, I was the one who decided to leave first…
I completely fell in love with the whole experi-ence, so since then, every time I have a chance, I go out and look for sea turtles. That same summer, I encountered my first couple of mating turtles. I was fascinated instantly, but experienced some mixed emotions. On the one hand, I felt very privileged to be a witness of such an amazing moment, but on the other, I felt like I was intefering in such an intimate act. So I decided to take only a few shots and slowly swim away, leaving them alone to finish in privacy.
Marine turtles are often called the ancient mariners of the sea. They have been swimming in the oceans for more than 150 million years. Inhabiting tropical and subtropical seas throughout the world, they tend to live long lives, around 50 years, spending most of it swim-ming and following ocean currents.
They feed on a wide range of animals and plants, inclusing sea sponges, jellyfish, algae, sea anemones, seagrass, mollusks, shrimp, corals, sea cucumbers, starfish, bottom dwelling invertebrates and yes, even fish. They are known to feed and rest off and on during a typical day and are mostly omnivorous in their adult life, except the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), which is herbivorous. All sea turtles have the same general life cycle; they grow slowly and take decades to reach sexual maturity. They can sleep at the surface in deep water areas or at the bottom, wedged under rocks in near shore waters.
Sea turtles are generally solitary creatures that remain submerged for much of the time they are at sea, which makes them extremely difficult to study. They rarely interact with one another outside of courtship and mating. Because of this difficulty in studying marine turtles in the open ocean, there are many things still unknown about their behaviour.
During mating season, males may court a female by nuzzling her head or by gently biting the back of her neck and rear flippers. If the female does not flee, the male attaches himself to the back of the female’s shell by gripping her top shell with the claws in his front flippers. He then folds his long tail under her shell to copulate.
Copulation can take place either on the surface or under water. Sometimes, several males will compete for females and may even fight each other. Observers of sea turtle mating have reported very aggressive behaviour by both the males and females. Females may mate with several males just prior to nesting season and store the sperm for several months. When she finally lays her eggs, they will have been fertilised by a variety of males. This behaviour may help keep genetic diversity high in the population. After copulation, males return to the deep sea to feed. For several weeks, female sea turtles alternate between mating in the water and laying their eggs on land. AD