The roots of surfing are planted firm and deep in Hawaiian culture. As a result, much of the culture and symbolism synonymous with Hawaii resonates with surfers all over the world, a kind of homage to the Polynesian ancestry of our sport. The image of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), or honu, can be found everywhere in surf style and communities.
The green sea turtle is the only indigenous reptile to the Hawaiian Islands and is a revered symbol of the ocean interwoven with much of the islands’ folklore. These so-called ancients are considered guardians of children and mariners on beaches and in the coastal waters. It is no wonder that surfers connect with sea turtles and when you see one in the water you should feel blessed.
Here in coastal California, we are well aware of the presence of sharks beneath the deep blue waves on which we ride. Occasionally a seal or sea lion may appear and swim curiously about, again reminding us that we are visitors in this sea that is their home. A sunset pod of dolphins can almost always bring a smile to the faces in a line up. Visits from these species are relatively commonplace, but the rarity of encounters with sea turtles conjures up images and memories of surf trips or vacations to Hawaii. Yet what most Californians don’t know, is that there just might be sea turtles swimming in their own surf breaks, coves, and bays.
Sea Turtles Guardians Of The Sea in San Diego
In San Diego waters, turtles have been present for at least 100 years. This small resident population of east Pacific green turtles quietly lives and forages in San Diego Bay. Their presence can be traced back through fishing and shipping records to at least the mid-to-late 1800s, and the monitoring of this population has been going on since the early 1970s. Outside of San Diego Bay, sea turtles are seen (though not as frequently) along the beach breaks from La Jolla Shores to North County San Diego.
Moving farther to the north and into the ‘OC,’ green sea turtles are regularly observed in the mouth of the San Gabriel River in Long Beach—a popular local surfing spot. There is an interesting tie that binds these two SoCal populations of green turtles: power plants.
Both San Diego Bay and the San Gabriel River have power plants that use (or used) the nearby waters for cooling purposes. As a result of this process, warm water is released back into the environment creating a sort of jacuzzi effect for the coastal inhabitants. Green turtles in San Diego and Long Beach are routinely observed in the outfall areas of these plants—where the warmed water is released—and researchers from the National Marine Fisheries Service monitor their movement. The turtles presumably use the warm water to maintain body temperature and reduce metabolic costs, especially in the winter months when the water temperatures drop.
While the plant in Long Beach remains operational, the South Bay Power Plant in San Diego ceased operation on December 31, 2010 leaving us to wonder—what will the turtles do? Local movement of the turtles is tracked by a team of collaborators from the National Marine Fisheries Service, San Diego State University, the United States Navy, and the Port of San Diego. The hope is to understand how the movement of the turtles in San Diego Bay relates to the water temperature and whether their behavior changes because of the power plant closure.
Observations from other power plants across the United States show that manatees, rays, fish, alligators, freshwater turtles, and other sea turtle populations demonstrate similar behavior at these sites. As our technology advances, many of these power plants will face decommissioning in the not too distant future. For some species, the warm water has allowed expansion into areas outside of their historical geographic ranges.
The loss of the warm water, now that they are accustomed to it, could prove distressing to those populations. Understanding how the green turtles in San Diego Bay are affected by the closure of the power plant could aid in the research and management of other populations and species.
Surfers connect with sea turtles, that is a fact. It might be our similar historical and cultural ties to Hawaii or it could be our mutually amphibious lifestyles. We are fortunate to share the water with these guardians of the sea. Because of this kinship, it behooves us to be ambassadors for the turtles whose home we share and enjoy.
Sheila V. Madrak is a surfer and PhD candidate in the Joint Doctoral Program in Ecology through San Diego State University and the University of California, Davis. Her dissertation research centers on the local movement of east Pacific green sea turtles as related to water temperature in San Diego Bay, San Diego, CA. Derek Dodds is owner of Wave Tribe and an ecological freedom fighter. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on turtles or inquire about joining the eco movement.