CARDIFF BY THE SEA — Two years ago at least two sea creatures moved stealthily into local waters. Tom Stephan was out surfing Cardiff reef when he first encountered them.
“One was big, about three-feet long, and the other was two feet,” he recalled. “They were eating algae on the reef.”
Not long after seeing them, Stephan was making a bottom turn on a wave when saw the little one. In a split second, he jumped off his surfboard to avoid injuring it.
“It was swimming next to me 100 yards off shore at low tide,” he remembered. “I saw the head of what I thought was a sea otter near a string of kelp, then I noticed reptilian eyes. I thought ‘Cool, the turtles are back.’”
Earlier this month, Stephan saw the turtles again.
Stephan began spreading the word about the turtles, fearing another surfer might accidentally hit one. He then polled surfers to see if there were other encounters. Vinnie Tessieri, who works at Hansen’s, also had a story.
“The first time I saw them was last summer when I was spear fishing at Swami’s and they were about 40 or 45 feet below the surface,” Tessieri said. “I’ve seen them at Pipes at about 35 feet. They were just cruising, and were about two-feet long with a few spots on their shells. I had never seen them before, so it was exciting to see them in action.”
Dr. Jeffrey Seminoff is program leader, Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment Program, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA. He said that although he was aware of turtles in San Diego Bay, he was surprised to learn two years ago that there were additional sightings north in the San Gabriel River. He described these as a “new phenomenon.”
“Just like San Gabriel, I think the Cardiff sightings are relatively new and an indication that the population is starting to recover and reoccupy previous habitats,” he said. “If we were to rewind 200 years, we probably would have seen them like they are now — probably more.”
Seminoff said the Cardiff sightings, most likely, are the tip of the iceberg.
“In the early 1970s, Michoacan, Mexico was their primary nesting place, and still is,” he explained. “About 15,000 females would come out and lay their eggs each nesting season from November to March. In the late 1980s, the nesting population was down to 200 to 300 turtles per year. The adults were killed for meat and the eggs were thought to be an aphrodisiac.”
Today, he said, the population has increased to about 5,000 turtles thanks to Michoacan’s conservation efforts, now in its third decade.
Known as East Pacific Green Turtles, they are genetically distinct from those observed between California and Chile, and the Yucatan where turtles swim with humans.
“These are very skittish and do not like people,” Seminoff cautioned. “In the future, those behaviors might change and they might become more accustomed to surfers. They are very savvy, and very cryptic.”
He added, “Juvenile turtles ‘pinball’ up the coast at about two to four years of age. Then they ‘set up shop’ and stay in the coastal area for 20 years. Upon sexual maturity, they start nesting.”
Surf legend Woody Ekstrom of Leucadia recalled his last encounter with a sea turtle.
“It was in 1943 at San Onofre, before they built the nuclear power plant,” he remembered. “The water was real warm, and the turtle was about 20 inches across. We were all impressed.”
Seminoff says local residents can help protect sea turtles by: refraining from using plastic bags which, when confused with food, can clog a turtle’s intestines resulting in death; eat sustainable seafood that employs turtle-friendly fishing methods (see: montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch), and by disposing motor oil and other poisons responsibly, so they don’t end up in the ocean.
East Pacific Green Turtles enjoy a rich diet that includes sea grass, algae, sponges, jellyfish, anemones, snails and invertebrates. For this reason, Seminoff speculates they could possibly be living in the San Elijo Lagoon.
He requests that sea turtle sightings in the lagoon be reported at: email@example.com.