Sea Turtles Test Urban Waters In Southern California 'Jacuzzi' Even with the warm outflow from nearby power plants, the San Gabriel River's an odd new habitat choice. Volunteers and researchers are working to study and track the population that's popped up there.

Sea Turtles Test Urban Waters In Southern California 'Jacuzzi'

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Here's a fish-out-of-water story - OK, actually a sea turtle out of water. Well, more accurate, sea turtles in the wrong water. The green sea turtle typically lives in tropical waters, places like Mexico or Hawaii. But recently scientists discovered a population swimming year-round in a river just south of Los Angeles. Here's Sanden Totten from member station KPCC.

SANDEN TOTTEN, BYLINE: Visit a three-mile stretch of the San Gabriel River in Long Beach, wait a few minutes and...

CASSANDRA DAVIS: (Gasps) See it? There's a large one. So that's exciting. We're already seeing turtles here. And...

TOTTEN: That's Cassandra Davis, shouting above the crowd. She's with the Aquarium of the Pacific. Today, she's training about 30 volunteers to help with the citizen science project to log the number and size of turtles seen in the river.

DAVIS: So the small turtles have heads about the size of a golf ball, and the large turtles, their heads are about the size of a softball or a grapefruit.

TOTTEN: Davis's group has been carrying out this sea turtle census for about three years. She estimates there are between 30 and 100 turtles in the area. But why these large tropical creatures chose this place to settle down is a mystery. It's a river sometimes mired in trash, next to a busy road and a military base.

DAN LAWSON: When you look around, this is not a tropical paradise or the other things that usually come to your mind when you think about sea turtles.

TOTTEN: Dan Lawson is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and studies this population. He says the river is a mix of salt and freshwater, which is good for sea turtles. It seems to have plenty of food, and it has another thing going for it...


TOTTEN: There are two power plants - one on each side of the river. They both suck in cold ocean water and use it to cool their generating systems. This process ends up heating the water before it's dumped back into the river.


TOTTEN: This warm outflow results in a sort of turtle Jacuzzi.

LAWSON: It's certainly creating a unique environment that is beneficial for them.

TOTTEN: But, Lawson says, there's a catch. Over the next decade or so, the plants will phase out this method of using ocean water as a cooling mechanism. That means, eventually, no Jacuzzi. It's unclear how this will affect the federally protected turtles. The cooler water will likely slow their bodies down, but the warmth might not be the only reason they're here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Turtle sighting at two.


PEGGY MORRISON: We've had three sightings. We think it may be the same turtle three times.

TOTTEN: That's why it's important volunteers like Peggy Morrison help track the number of turtles. The data will establish a baseline for this population so researchers will know if and when their numbers start to drop. For her part, Morrison just gets a kick out of seeing the unlikely river residents. She remembers one day when she swears she saw more than 40 different turtles float by.

MORRISON: That will last me forever. It was amazing, the miracle turtle-sighting day.

TOTTEN: But urban environments can be dangerous for turtles. While Peggy Morrison and I were talking, a group of volunteers found one struggling to dive near the riverbank. NOAA scientist Dan Lawson pulled it from the water.

What's going on?

LAWSON: Turtle was wrapped up. And it looks like fishing line wrapped around the front two flippers and the neck.

TOTTEN: Using a small knife, Lawson tries to untangle the turtle from this mess of knotty rope and wire.

LAWSON: It's either this line - here's the...

TOTTEN: After about 10 minutes, the turtle is free and let back into the river.


TOTTEN: Lawson says despite the dangers posed by trash, speeding boats and the occasional poacher, these animals seem to be doing well. In fact, he says, this odd urban population might actually be a sign that decades of sea turtle conservation are paying off. For NPR News, I'm Sanden Totten in Los Angeles.


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