4,770-Mile Turtle Wins Solstice Swim

George Shillinger, Hopkins Marine Station, CA. -- It's hard to believe, but the winning turtle in the Summer-to-Summer Solstice Super Swimathon stroked 4,770 miles since she left Costa Rica 10 months ago! Bet you forgot there was even a race going on. That's turtle-racing for you. They move so slowly that the rest of the world forgets about them. But not leatherback fans, right?

Since laying her eggs in February on her dark nesting beach of Playa Grande, Genevieve leatherback turtle swam the equivalent of one and a half times across the United States in her quest to eat jellyfish. Here's her track.

Only Genevieve and two other turtles -- Turtleocity and Freedom -- are still sending back signals through their satellite tags. Turtleocity swam 3,924 miles to come in second in the swimathon, and Freedom came in third, covering 3,838 miles. Here's Turtleocity's track:

And here's Freedom's:

Billie, the winner of the Great Turtle Race, was well on her way to second place, when her tag stopped reporting at the end of October. She'd traveled 3,972 miles.

To recap: The first turtles to stop transmitting were Stephanie Colburtle (925 miles), Drexelina, Windy (1,508 miles) and Champira (2,616 miles). Then, over the last couple of months, Saphira (2,474 miles), Purple Lightning (2,695 miles), and Sundae (3,276 miles) dropped out.

Most of the Great Turtle Race turtles took a different migration path this year, compared to previous years. Most swung by the Galapagos Islands and headed down the South American coast. But instead of hanging out around 30 degrees latitude, at the south end of the South Pacific Gyre, they turned around and are now moseying around 10 to 12 degrees latitude, at the northern edge of the South Pacific Gyre.

But nobody knows why they are where they are. In these last few years that we've been able to watch where leatherbacks and other Pacific Ocean-going animals migrate, many species, such as elephant seals, hang out in areas where other satellites show images that indicate there's a lot of plant life on the surface of the water. That usually means food: small plants attract small animals, which attract larger animals....you get the picture.

But leatherbacks don't spend a lot of time where the images show green plants on the ocean surface. In fact, the turtles swim right past them. So, we're thinking that maybe the jellyfish that leatherbacks love eat small animals that live deeper, hidden from the surface-scanning satellites.

It's a big question. To answer it, we'll have to head to the South Pacific Gyre in a ship and go jellyfishing.

And why hang out at 10 to 12 degrees, far off the coast of Colombia, instead of at the south end of the Gyre, closer to Chile? Maybe it has something to do with the differences between the Pacific Ocean's El Nino and La Nina years. More about that in our next dispatch, along with some fabulous news from a leatherback at Playa Grande!

p.s. We're not giving up on hearing from any of our missing leatherbacks...not for another six months, at least. Some have gone for as long as six months without sending us a signal. Not that we don't worry.....