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Turtle Sanctuary


Vietnam's sacred turtle dies; William Beebe watches turtles breed in Mexico

Published in the November 1937 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Turtle Sanctuary” is William Beebe’s account of a week he spent observing the habits of turtles on Clarion Island, a remote landmass located 430 miles west of mainland Mexico. Read the full article here.


From a New York Times report, published January 22, 2016, on the death of Cu Rua, a sacred turtle in Vietnam.

[T]he turtle’s relationship with China also has an element of codependency.
      The only known remaining female Yangtze giant softshell turtle lives in China, and her male partner there may be infertile, several turtle experts said in interviews this week.
      The species’ last best hope may be to breed Vietnam’s last surviving turtle with China’s female.

After climbing over the second out-jutting dyke of lava we came to the real sand beach, where at once we discovered fresh tracks and a few yards from the rocks we found the first turtle. In a few minutes we had counted thirteen. Two were still in the surf, the tide having begun to go down. Others were halfway up. I watched them carefully. They would make about three lunges with both fore flippers simultaneously, the hind ones remaining practically helpless, and each effort gained about eight inches. The fresh tracks at night looked exactly as I have described them, with double, deep central furrows and a regular succession of lateral patterns on each side, the mark of the hind flippers being absorbed in the larger impressions of the fore.

Nine turtles were at the summit of the beach and either resting from their herculean labors of pushing up through the soft sand or actually at work. I found this of the greatest interest. The first process was to sink themselves in a fairly deep hollow below the surface. This was done by lowering the head; and jamming it into the sand, and then making swimming motions, very deliberately and simultaneously, with both front flippers, and then doing the same with the hind ones, although these limbs worked alternately. When this had been kept up for a while the turtle was almost suspended upon an isthmus of sand connecting two side cross bridges, with the sand swept away fore and aft, making an hourglass figure of sorts. After a rest the right or the left front paddle would work at the same time as the opposite one at the posterior end of the turtle, this resulting in a revolving motion, first to one side then to the other, until the hourglass had been changed into a circular pit with the great reptile balanced on a central projection. After, at the most, a half dozen efforts, the turtle always rested for a considerable time, evidently exhausted.

The whole thing was astonishing when considered in the abstract: this enormous creature, weighing several hundred pounds and spending its whole life in a medium which supported a considerable percentage of its weight, suddenly to swim ashore and to gouge a way through soft, clogging sand, and dig itself in at the top of the steep beach. Its flippers, head and back, and even its eyes were covered and clogged with sand. The exchange of the all-supporting water for the thin air and the obstructing sand would seem to offer almost insurmountable obstacles to the accomplishment of the most important and vital act of its life.

Read the full article here.

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November 1937

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