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CA Press:Rare sea turtle finds sunshine in Marin

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Posted by desiree on December 04, 2002 at 23:47:26:

Rare sea turtle finds sunshine in Marin
Warm-water reptile comes ashore at Tomales Bay beach
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 4, 2002
2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

This olive ridley sea turtle unexpectedly pulled itself out of the water and sunned itself in front of an astonished Reuven Walder, one of the Bay Area's few sea turtle biologists. Photo by Reuven Walder, special to the Chronicle

This olive ridley sea turtle was photographed by sea turtle biologist Reuven Walder on Thanksgiving Day. Here, the 75-pound reptile swims in Tomales Bay after sunning itself on the beach. Photo by Reuven Walder, special to the Chronicle

A giant sea turtle ambled out of the chilly waters of Tomales Bay on Thanksgiving to the amazement of several witnesses and sunned itself on a beach near Inverness, thousands of miles from its normal habitat in Mexico and Costa Rica.

The adult turtle, weighing an estimated 75 pounds, emerged from the water directly in front of one of the Bay Area's few sea turtle biologists, who happened to be at Shell Beach that day with his family.

"I said, 'Oh my God, it's a sea turtle!' " recounted Reuven Walder, a biologist with the Turtle Island Restoration Network, which focuses on sea turtle and salmon conservation. "It was absolutely remarkable. Here we were just sitting on the beach, and the sea turtle just hauled out in front of us thousands of miles from its normal range. We were beside ourselves."

The creature, officially known as an olive ridley sea turtle, moseyed a little ways up the beach and plopped down as Walder stood, mouth agape, fumbling for his camera.

He managed to snap about 25 pictures before the turtle shuffled back into the water and swam off, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

Marine experts struggled Tuesday to come up with an explanation for the reptile's strange odyssey.

Martin Haulena, the staff veterinarian for the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands, said it probably just got off course. He said the cold water would have slowed the sea turtle's heart rate and put the animal in a shutdown state called "cold-stunning," allowing it to survive for weeks, even months, while drifting with the currents. He said the turtle probably hoped to thaw out a bit when it waddled up on Shell Beach.

The sighting was all the more unusual because olive ridleys are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, according to Todd Steiner, director of the restoration network.

He said the reptiles, which grow 2 1/2 feet long and reach 100 pounds, are one of the seven species of sea turtle and are normally seen in warmer waters to the south. During the mating season between July and December, hundreds of thousands of them crowd onto beaches along the coast of Mexico and Costa Rica to nest, an event known in Spanish as the arribada, or arrival.

Their nesting habits, however, made them easy prey for those who would kill them for their skins. Steiner said as many as 75,000 turtles a year were being killed before laws were passed to prevent the practice. Their numbers were also greatly reduced by development.

Steiner, whose organization was instrumental in closing down a sea turtle slaughterhouse in the state of Oaxaca in 1990, said leatherback turtles have been seen in Monterey and around the Farallones, but even that species rarely comes out of the water unless it is nesting.

"It is incredibly unusual," Steiner said of the Shell Beach incident, which was witnessed by several swimmers and hikers as well. "If Reuven hadn't had those photographs, I'm not sure I would have believed it."

Such sightings, however, are not unheard of, Haulena said. He said the Marine Mammal Center has found 16 sea turtles, half of them dead, along the Northern California coast over the past five years.

The dead ones were mostly leatherbacks, but he said the others included rare green and olive ridley sea turtles. Some of the living ones were found in Marin County and north of there.

"There is something wrong with them, obviously, because they are stranded, and we think it is because they've gotten themselves into water that is too cold," Haulena said. "It's not really normal for them to haul out, around here especially."

Steiner and Walder said unusual current patterns caused by what many meteorologists are predicting will be another El Nino winter may also be a factor. Barracudas and other tropical fish have been found in Northern California waters during previous El Ninos.

But Steiner said the odd appearance could have been caused by almost anything.

"The animal may just be confused," he said. "Another explanation is that this is Sinbad the explorer turtle who went out to explore new areas to colonize."

The water was about 55 degrees over the weekend, "pretty cold for a turtle, " Steiner said, but marine biologists, state and federal park rangers were nevertheless keeping their eyes open Tuesday, hoping for another sighting.

2002 San Francisco Chronicle. Page A - 1

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