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Preserving the Species

After taking the blood sample, we release the leatherback from her temporary bondage and watch as she hauls herself toward the breaking surf. The high tide, which she had relied on to carry her as far up the beach as possible, has begun to go out, making her journey more taxing than on the way in. She breathes hard, and the bulbous flesh on her neck and shoulders glows crimson from the exertion. But she presses on, leaving a track in the sand five feet wide. Before long, the first frothy waves begin splashing over her broad back. A few minutes later, she regains buoyancy and instantly vanishes into the sea.

More research will be needed to determine whether this leatherback then swam down a sea-turtle highway to her feeding grounds-and to solve an ocean of other mysteries about leatherbacks. Some questions, such as where baby turtles go when they disappear into the waves, may have to await breakthroughs in available technologies, such as miniaturized satellite transmitters perhaps, or even new technologies altogether. “When I think about trying to figure out where those hatchlings are going out there, it makes me blanch,” Eckert says. But it hardly deters him. “We have to get a better understanding of where leatherbacks go, what they’re doing out there, and what habitats they need to survive, or we’re wasting all our efforts everywhere else,” he adds, referring to attempts to safeguard nesting beaches. “That’s my crusade of perhaps the next 50 years.”

Another crusade of Eckert’s is informing the general public about leatherbacks and their plight. “It’s your long-term insurance,” he notes. One of the best ways to educate people, he says, is with yet another burgeoning technology-the Internet. There are now a number of popular sea-turtle-oriented Web pages, and some researchers, including Paladino’s colleague Edward Standora of Buffalo State College in Buffalo, N.Y., have begun to put their satellite tracks out over the net, so schoolchildren can watch the turtles’ progress. “The Internet is an inexpensive way to distribute information to a very wide readership,” Eckert says, “and any time you do that you’re benefiting conservation of the species.”

Meanwhile, until wider scientific understanding of leatherbacks exists, researchers agree that the most promising way of preserving the species remains protecting its nesting grounds. Toward that end, there is good news at Playa Grande. In July 1995, the Costa Rican government declared Playa Grande and two neighboring nesting beaches a national park, Parque Marino Las Baulas, or “Leatherback Turtle Marine Park.” Beyond a strong national conservation ethic, the Costa Rican authorities granted protection largely based on Paladino’s and Spotila’s cutting-edge research.

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