Sea turtles in the Canary Islands
Sea turtles are reptilians that have adjusted to life in the oceans and are currently an endangered species as a result of their vulnerability to fishing activities and sea pollution with hydrocarbons and plastic packaging. In addition, their biological cycle requires them to step out of the sea and perform their egg laying on sandy beaches where human activities interfere directly, to the point that they suffer from nest pilferage and are caught for their meat.
In the Canary Islands, the occurrence of six species populating the Atlantic Ocean has been registered. Having said that, the presence of two amongst them in the archipelago’s waters is extremely rare. The latter are namely the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) and the olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), that typically inhabit tropical waters. The hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), yet another tropical species, can only be spotted on very few occasions. The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) -also known as the lute sea turtle-, and the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) are recorded more regularly, but the most frequently seen sea turtle is hands-down the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta). Only one of the above would head to Canarian beaches for reproductive purposes back in the remote past, the leatherback sea turtle. However, some striking isolated events have been recently observed in Fuerteventura, arising great excitement. Canarian waters are but a feeding and transit area during migration periods in these animals’ eyes. Offshore, they feed primarily on jellyfish and other gelatinous invertebrate species, alternatively, when they approach the coastline, they target sea-bottom invertebrates such as molluscs, sea urchins, crabs, etc. The green turtle is the exception to this rule, feeding only on algae and marine phanerogams. Some of these species can even be spotted during diving and even snorkelling outings, especially the loggerhead sea turtle and the green sea turtle. Certain spots in the southern shoreline of Tenerife host specimens for longer periods of time, so that visitors are sure to come across them. For those lucky enough to do so, we recommend to savour the experience and watch them calmly, for they are beautiful placid creatures, and never to feed them, since it could potentially alter their habits and cause abnormal behaviours that could even be of risk for the diver.
Intense sailing and fishing activities taking place in the surroundings of the Canary Islands will often result in accidents when turtles surface in order to breathe. Aiming to foster preservation, there are currently two recovery centres in the archipelago -on Gran Canaria and Tenerife, respectively- where experienced teams treat them and look after them until they are fit to return to the sea -the release is frequently carried out in the context of educational and environmental awareness events, where students can get involved-. Additionally on Fuerteventura, a preservation campaign consisting of the incubation of eggs brought all the way from an egg laying site in Cape Verde in one of the island’s beaches is currently being trialed. The aim is for animals hatched in Fuerteventura to return to that very beach come their time to reproduce, resorting to these long-lived animals’ broadly known habit.