An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Crystal X. '19

Sixteen Upper School students are currently in French Polynesia for a three-week Global Service Learning experience that is part of the Advanced Ecological Studies immersion class. Through classroom learning and investigative research, field and cultural experiences, and service learning, the class uses ecosystems of the French Polynesian islands as a case study to explore the intersection and interaction between biology, conservation, sustainability, and economics. Students regularly post reflections as part of their learning process.

Yesterday, we visited a sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation center called Te Mana o Te Moana (The Spirit of the Ocean). It was so amazing for me to see green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles here because I did a big research project on sea turtles in the fall before coming on this trip! That research project sparked my curiosity in these magnificent creatures so I was really excited to learn more from our guide, Sylvia. She showed us all of the turtles that are currently at the center and we learned about why they are there.

We met three adult turtles, all of which were rescued after boating accidents, shark attacks, or fishing accidents. Unfortunately, these three turtles will live the rest of their lives at the center because they will never be able to feed and defend themselves, which is the center’s criteria for releasing turtles back into the ocean. The first turtle we met had a large air bubble stuck in its shell, which prevented it from submerging in the water to catch any prey. Another turtle was struck by a harpoon, which left it blind in both eyes. The last turtle was half blind and could only make left turns, therefore leaving it swimming in circles in the middle of the pool. The trainers have been hard at work trying to train that turtle to make right turns as well in hopes that it could return to the ocean, but so far, that work hasn’t shown very much progress.

Next, we were introduced to the baby turtles, all of whom are hopefully going back to the ocean when they are older! These turtles were brought to the center from Tetiaroa after rescuers saw them struggling to enter the water. Many of these baby turtles were at the bottom of the nest, and with all of the trampling and stomping of siblings trying to climb out of the nest, they were either injured or too weak to climb. Because of human development near beaches, turtle nesting sites have been disappearing rapidly, which is why we must try to rescue and strengthen every turtle that is born. We learned that only one in one hundred turtles make it to juvenile years and only one in one thousand reach adulthood, when they are able to reproduce!

We also learned a lot about turtle nests, which happened to be the focus of my project in the fall. When turtle nests become warmer than around 23C, the turtles born are primarily female. When the nests are colder, the turtles hatched are mostly male. With global temperatures rising, the temperatures of nests are also rising, which is a clear problem for the future of the already dwindling population of sea turtles. Additionally, a lot of human waste is ending up in the ocean and polluting the homes of sea turtles. Plastic bags are often mistaken as jellyfish and eaten by sea turtles. Turtles, like other animals, can’t digest plastic, so the plastic bags end up in their stomachs, tricking the turtles into thinking that they are full until they eventually die of starvation.

The volunteers at Te Mana O Te Moana have been hard at work educating the community about human threats to turtles, as well as going out and rescuing sea turtles. Saving a species takes effort from everyone; so, do what you can to help out. Many of us can’t quit our jobs and leave our families to go out and rescue turtles, but we can all do our part in picking up plastic that may end up in the water for animals like sea turtles to mistaken as jellyfish.