Great Turtle Race Staged in Pacific

Leatherback turtle swimming underwater. (Image credit: ©Tamar-Ibama)

Slow and steady might win a race among 11 leatherback turtles tagged with GPS transmitters and engaged in a heated swim contest from Costa Rica to the Gal?pagos.

The race, designed to bring attention to the species' endangered status, started at the leatherback's nesting grounds in Playa Grande, Costa Rica, and invites people to vote for their favorite hard-shelled contestant.

Even comedian Stephen Colbert, who has a hefty female named for him in the competition, has gotten in on the act.

"It's not really a real-time race," said Lisa Bailey of Conservation International, which is co-organizing the race. "The turtles were tagged during nesting season at Playa Grande over a period of three weeks earlier this year. Some have already finished their journey and some are still in the middle of it."

"But all of their times are being recorded, and we're about to stage the day-by-day progress online as if they all left together."

That "departure" is set for  April 16, and meanwhile the results  are being guarded with Oscar-like secrecy to make the competition work, Bailey told LiveScience.

Fighting extinction

Since early this month, the public has been invited to visit the event's choose a favorite candidate from the 11 females.

The line-up includes "Sundae," whose scorecard admits she got off to a bit of a slow start; the scarred and battered rookie "Purple Lightning;" and Colbert's own "Stephanie Colburtle," the heaviest of the pack. Leatherback turtles have been known to weigh upwards of 2,000 pounds.

Hilarity aside, the focus of The Great Turtle Race is to educate the public about the leatherback's fight against extinction.

Virtually unchanged for 100 million years, the massive turtles have outlived the dinosaurs but their numbers have drastically declined in the past decade. Playa Grande used to host thousands of females lay eggs every year; fewer than 100 nested there in the last five years, according to Conservation International. 

Well-known course

Every turtle in the race is fit with a satellite tag to record its route, as well as water temperatures and other environmental details. The information will be used to help biologists craft conservation programs specifically for the leatherbacks, who take the nearly the same route every year from Costa Rica to their Gal?pagos feeding grounds, off the West Coast of South America

The race, however, adds a little excitement.

"All this science--the tagging, the tracking--is going on anyways, so we thought why not take the opportunity to turn it into something fun and build some public awareness," Bailey said. "Having Stephen Colbert promote it on his TV show certainly helped."

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.