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Fear for the Turtle: A Race Across the Pacific Promotes Conservation

June 02, 2008

With the Olympics just around the corner, turtle researchers are taking advantage of the public’s insatiable hunger for sports in order to save the endangered leatherback turtle. Drexel University and several partners are staging a simulated race across the Pacific to drum up public support for efforts at conservation.

Leatherback turtle

The Great Turtle Race II is a two-week contest, starting today, that tracks 11 turtles as they speed 3,000 miles from two starting points (Indonesia and California) toward the International Date Line. The swiftness of the turtles is an illusion, however. The race is actually a compressed version of migration data that researchers collected last year and this year over several months. They used satellites to track the turtles from a nesting site in Indonesia and from feeding grounds off California, said James Spotila, a professor of environmental science at Drexel and the president of the Leatherback Trust, a conservation organization.

Last year’s race attracted more than 250,000 people to the event’s Web site, he said in an interview. In addition to increasing awareness about the plight of the leatherback, the race organizers hope to raise $75,000 to buy a boat for turtle researchers in Indonesia. In addition to Drexel, Kalamazoo College and Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne are among the race’s sponsors. —Richard Monastersky