Once sea turtles make it past the breaking waves, they disappear into the ocean for many years, and only re-emerge on their birth beach in their 'teens'. This is known as 'the lost years'. Where have they been?
Finally, scientists have partially resolved the mystery, at least as far as sea turtles from Florida are concerned. To solve the enigma of the lost years of baby sea turtles, scientists glued tracking devices to the shells of 21 three-to-nine-month-old green sea turtles and released them back into the sea a few miles offshore from where they hatched.
They discovered they spend their early lives in the underwater forest of amber-yellow seaweed in the North Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso Sea is named after the free-floating sargassum seaweed that thrives there. Unlike most seas, the Sargasso doesn’t have strict boundaries but is loosely formed by the swirling currents of the North Atlantic gyre.
This study is the first that tracks the movements of such young turtles. Of those tracked, 14 of the 21 sea turtles rode north on the Gulf Stream current before exiting the underwater highway to either the western or northern Sargasso Sea.
This discovery suggests that the Sargasso Sea is an essential habitat for sea turtle populations and the good news is that this knowledge will help with future conservation efforts.
Florida Atlantic University biologist Jeanette Wyneken says, “These studies in which we learn where little sea turtles go to start growing up are fundamental to sound sea turtle conservation… if we don’t know where they are and what parts of the ocean are important to them, we are doing conservation blindfolded.”