June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Olivia Rehberger reviews My Life with Sea Turtles, by Christine Figgener, translated by Jane Billinghurst

My life with Sea Turtles is an honest and engaging autobiography that tracks the life of Christine Figgener alongside an illustrative education of sea turtle life. The book leaves you inspired to pay attention to the little choices all around you that can make an impact on marine life. After reading this extraordinary book I had the opportunity to talk to the extraordinary woman behind it.

Born in the Ruhr region of Germany, Chrsitine’s interest in marine life began in two places, during family vacations to the coast and in the autobiographies of Hans Hass and Jane Goodall. People with whom she would later turn to for inspiration in writing her own story. She would go on to study biological sciences at the University of Tübingen, but find the rote learning of academia uninspiring. Near the end of her course Chrstine traveled to Egypt and had her first taste of field experience. An encounter with a sea turtle would revive her childhood dreams and lead her to formative work as a research assistant in Gandoca, Costa Rica.

When asked about why specifically sea turtles inspire her, Chrstine responds with a story of the first time she saw a leatherback sea turtle make a nest. While on a nightly patrol of the beach in Gandoca, Chrsitine spots a female sea turtle she affectionately calls “old lady” pull herself up from the surf to dig her nest in the sand. After giving the turtle some space to find a spot, Christine and her companion slowly tiptoe up behind her and watch as she skillfully, and gracefully digs a nest to lay her eggs. Christine talks about this being a transformative moment for her. All of the information and training she had received rushed back to her as well as a keen sense of being human, and the impact that we have on the natural world.

This encounter and her work in Gandoca would be the first in years of valuable research in Costa Rica. Her most widely known endeavor however would happen almost by chance as in 2015 while researching for her PhD, Christine caught on video a scene that, as she describes, was a “starting point to opening the eyes of the world.” While catching, cataloging, and releasing sea turtles for her PhD, Christine’s coworkers Dr. Nathan Robinson inspected what looked to be a barnacle up the nose of an olive ridley turtle. After some pulling, and obvious discomfort on the side of the turtle, they discover that it

is indeed a full length plastic straw in its nose. They quickly work to do right by the turtle and get the rest of the straw out and it’s a difficult process to watch. The video is brutal, heart wrenching, and necessary in showing just one instance of the effect single use plastics and other trash has on marine life. It quickly went viral and sent waves through companies like Starbucks that changed designs to not include straws or Disney that removed plastic straws and stirrers from all its locations. While the effects this video had are incredibly good, there is still a long way to go before people like Christine can rest easy about the future of our oceans.

My life with Sea Turtles illustrates not only Christine’s life but also those of the seven remaining species of sea turtles. The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) in particular is the only remaining soft shelled sea turtle and uses this element of their anatomy to accommodate the pressure of deep dives. Diving over 1,000 meters deep, leatherback turtles can avoid predators and find dinner in jellyfish and plankton. They are also incredible endurance swimmers and will travel unimaginable distances to return to their nesting beaches to lay their eggs. One record holding leatherback turtle was recorded swimming from Indonesia to the coast of Oregon in the United States, a distance of 20,558 kilometers. There is still more research to be done about how sea turtles are able to find their way across the vastness of the ocean but it’s known that they rely on sensing the Earth’s magnetic field, much like migratory birds. However, they also may use the sun and stars, waves, or olfactory cues in the water. After going an untold number of miles the females of the species still have the strength to come on shore and lay their eggs. They truly are an incredibly strong family of animals.

Christine refers to her work as the business of restoration. After hundreds of years of hunting sea turtles for meat and their shells, their numbers are dangerously low and threatened by changing temperatures. Our duty now is in keeping them safe and replenishing their numbers. If you take away anything from her book it’s the message that whatever you do has an impact, and you get to choose if that impact is positive or negative.