Green giants: Sea turtles quietly enjoying La Jolla

sea turtles in La Jolla float at the waters surface

Among the milieu of creatures inhabiting the waters off La Jolla’s coast is a species whose presence here is becoming “more and more common,” according to a biologist who studies them.

Called the East Pacific green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), these marine reptiles can be about three feet long and weigh somewhere between 300 and 350 pounds.

Local free diver Flo Li, a longtime resident and avid La Jolla ocean swimmer, only recently encountered one of these large sea turtles in September, and said she “fell in love.”

Swimming in murky water with “almost zero visibility,” Li saw a “big boulder inching closer to her,” she said.

Realizing it was a turtle, Li admired its large feet and noticed its shell was “not perfectly round and smooth,” with peculiar ridges.

In her subsequent research on the animal, Li later learned local free divers and water enthusiasts call the turtle “Bond,” and he is known as the biggest sea turtle in town.

Bond appears to be one of the resident population of green turtles established near La Jolla Shores, according to Jeffrey Seminoff, who leads the Marine Turtle Ecology & Assessment Program at the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division of the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

Though they can be seen here year-round, the green sea turtles are one of the “best kept biodiversity secrets” in San Diego, Seminoff said. 

 

Once at “rock bottom” numbers in the 1990s after being sought for their meat, skin for leather and more, the green turtles are rebounding and becoming “more and more common,” he said, taking to habitats like La Jolla Cove and others.

Since September, Li has spotted a second, smaller, female turtle outside the Marine Room, one known as “Miss Boots.” 

“She was a lot smaller, she’s more graceful” than Bond, Li said.

Seminoff estimates there are anywhere from four to 10 green sea turtles in the area, though he added the local marine tourists (kayakers, snorkelers and divers) are the best “community scientists” to ask.

The local freediving community believes there are about four turtles in the area, Li said.

Seminoff and his team use facial recognition and artificial intelligence software to record and study the turtles; he noted there were about eight turtles here in 2020.

“It’s a constant rotation of who’s here,” he said.

La Jolla is an “unusual habitat” for the species, Seminoff said, as the water temperature at the Cove is much colder than the turtles normally thrive in.

Normally “comatose” in such low temperatures, the current turtle behavior provides scientists a new perspective on how adaptive the species is, he said.

snorkeler with a camera dives down to photograph green sea turtles in La Jolla

Li recently saw Bond again outside the Marine Room, recognizing him by the shape of his shell. “The turtle started swimming over to me,” she said, adding she stayed still to watch him. 

That’s the right move, Seminoff said, as green sea turtles are listed nationally as a threatened species despite their climbing numbers. It’s illegal to touch the turtle, cause it stress or alter its behavior, even if it approaches you.

Seminoff suggests a 15-foot distance between humans and the turtles, while acknowledging the reptiles “get habituated to people in the water” and often close that gap.

“A lot of times we don’t even think about protecting turtles or ocean conservation until we have an incredible encounter and we fall in love,” Li said. 

“I think the most amazing part about why people love turtles so much [is they’re] so chill, so nonchalant,” she said. “Bond remains in his … own grounded, peaceful space.”

Li is also in awe of “how respectful all these swimmers, snorkelers and photographers were to the turtle,” she said “I’m [impressed] by how well we’re doing as a community here.”

If you’ve spotted a sea turtle, help NOAA keep track by reporting it at this link.

Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.
Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.

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