These lessons are designed so you can spend a whole day talking about sea turtles! This curriculum addresses reading, writing, language arts, math, and social studies components. Other elements from the Leatherback Teaching Kit and lesson plans from other teachers on this site can also be included.
By Wendy Amato, M.Ed.
Lesson One-Sea turtle sanctuary READING
We arrived at the sea turtle sanctuary at a great time, even though my family and I usually don't get up this early. We were directed down the beach, where we could help.
A woman with curly brown hair was kneeling on the sand, digging, and lifting out tiny grey objects and putting them in a bucket. As I ran closer, I could see that they were moving. They were turtles! I knelt down next to her, and she handed one to me. It fit in my hand, and had a rough shell and long, soft flippers. Its eyes were huge and did not blink. I looked at it for a long time. How amazing-to be holding an endangered animal! Ancient, like the dinosaurs. Some indigenous people around the world even believe that the turtle created the universe. And I was holding one in my hand!
We counted each turtle, as we lifted it out of the nest, and carefully placed it in a bucket. There were 61! Maria told us there are so many babies in order to try to outnumber predators…statistically, only a few may make it to adulthood.
In the bucket, the turtles were scurrying toward the edge, climbing on top of each other to get out. Maria, the biologist who works at the sanctuary, handed me a turtle who was still struggling to get out of its shell. She showed me how to gently free it. The egg was kind of soft, like leather, not hard like a chicken egg.
Maria turned the turtle over and showed me the small yolk sack attached to its belly. "That's where its been getting its food," she explained. "Now the yolk will last about three more days…enough time for it to get out into the ocean and find food."
"Where do they go?" I asked.
"No one is sure," Maria answered. She explained that it is known that the hatchlings head out into the waves, not hiding close to shore. They spend their lives traveling huge distances, sometimes crossing the entire ocean. The females, once they are grown, will come back to this same beach to nest and lay eggs. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer turtles return each year to lay eggs on this beach. This means that the turtles seem to be dying out, and may become extinct.
We dug down to the very bottom of the nest, where there were still some eggs that were cold. This meant that they died, and that made me sad, but Maria reminded me that in the wild, very few turtles even make it to the ocean, so we were really making a difference and helping more to live. About a month ago, Maria and the other biologist dug up these eggs as soon as they were laid on the beach, and moved them here to the fenced-in hole in the sand. It was easy to see where the nest was, because the mother turtle leaves a long trail where she has dragged her body up the beach and back to the water. She also makes a mound over the nest, to protect it.
Because the mother leaves the eggs in the sand and goes back to the ocean, it makes the nest vulnerable to predators. Animals such as raccoons might dig them up to eat them, and sometimes people even dig up the nests to eat or sell the eggs. Sometimes a hurricane or large storm will wash the eggs away. The eggs won't hatch unless they stay in the sand.
If the eggs make it through all those threats and hatch, many baby turtles are eaten by birds, crabs, and other animals, unless there are people like Maria around to protect them.
I carried the bucket of hatchlings carefully down to where the sand was wet. We couldn't dump them right into the ocean because they have to "imprint" on the beach…a sort of memory so they know where to come back to nest. I gently set the bucket down on its side and started scooping out the turtles onto the sand.
They immediately knew which way to run, and scurried toward the waves. Some disappeared easily into the water, but then a big wave came and tossed some of the turtles farther up onto the beach! I worried that they were hurt, but they continued to propel themselves towards the ocean. They were determined! One little turtle started to go the wrong way, and suddenly a crab came out of the ground and grabbed it! I went running over to help it, and the vibration of my feet frightened the crab and it dropped the turtle. I picked up the hatchling, made sure it was okay, and carried it closer to the water. I was so nervous for those little turtles…I wished they would hurry up and get out in the water! Finally, they all disappeared into the waves. I felt relieved, but also still worried that they might get eaten by large fish or become lost…I wanted to go swimming with them, and continue to protect them….
I'm not sure they are ever safe. How amazing it is that the babies hatch and know where to go, without anyone showing them or taking care of them. Most animals are sheltered by their parents for at least a short while. But turtles are immediately on their own. There's some fierce determination there, against huge odds. I felt victorious knowing that we got them all out to the ocean, but there may be big fish looking to eat them. It's tough being a turtle!
In spite of the overwhelming odds…I felt good that we helped increase the hatchlings' chances of survival…they got through the first danger, which was just hatching and making it to the ocean….now maybe more of them will live to return to this beach and continue the cycle. Maybe with more sanctuaries like this one, they won't become extinct.
What is a sanctuary? Why is it important?
Why are the eggs moved? How are they protected?
Why are the hatchlings released all at once? Why not release a few every hour?
Where do you think the turtles go?
Lesson Two: Plastic bags -MATH
Leatherback sea turtles LOVE to eat jellyfish. Jellyfish are white and float around like clouds in the ocean. Unfortunately, plastic bags that we get at stores also are white or creamy and float in water. When a Leatherback turtle eats a plastic bag, the bag may choke the turtle or stay in its stomach. The turtle might not feel hungry, or there might not be much room in its stomach for jellyfish, and it may die.
Most people don't realize how many plastic bags they use every year, and how many of those can end up in lakes, streams, and the ocean.
Think about the last time your family went to the store. How many bags of groceries did you buy? Did you go to any other stores and get things in bags? Estimate how many bags your family uses in a week. (If your family uses canvas bags, estimate how many plastic bags another family might use).
Multiply this number by 52, which is the number of weeks in a year. Now you should have how many plastic bags you use in a year.
Now multiply this by ________, the number of people in your class.
_________, the number of people in your school, city, state, country!
That's a lot of plastic bags! Recycling plastic bags at the grocery store can help stop them from winding up in the garbage or the ocean, but it still means there are a lot of bags being produced and used.
What are some ways that we can reduce that number?
Let's say that half the population starts to use canvas bags for their purchases. How many still get thrown away or dropped on the ground?
Lesson Three: Turtle Poetry - LANGUAGE ARTS, WRITING
Drumturtle by Wendy Amato
Throughout eternity, Drumturtle floated through the universe, among the stars and galaxies.
Within her, thump thump, the heartbeat rhythm of a thunderous taiko drum, percolating, resonating…
and imbuing her soul and the universe with a pulse of wonder and joy and grace.
Her shell vibrated with percussive music..thump thump…
and on her back she carried a speck of dust, which, through the tingling tympani of eons, grew slowly until it evolved into an orb.
Drumturtle floated through the vastness, singing her resonant song, thump thump…
and the orb absorbed the heartbeat, joined it, became it.
Thump thump, the orb sang, plangently, sonorously, in time with the heartbeat of the universe.
The orb grew larger and spawned tiny organisms, thump thump, vibrating with energy and life.
The ball expanded prodigiously, the rhythm penetrating and syncopating, lively, enchanting, enhancing the dance of the Earth.
Eventually, the planet was teeming with life…
and Drumturtle released it carefully, gently, from her back into place near a warm and nurturing sun.
She circled the planet, marveling at the creation.
Then she dove into the ocean and swam playfully, freely enjoying the smoothness of the water on her delicate skin.
Thump thump, her heartbeat sang to the sea creatures, protecting and reassuring them…
delighting in their companionship.
Thump thump, Drumturtle's acoustic and vibrant melody sings in unison with the Earth...
dreaming a promise of miracles.
Copyright 2004 Wendy D. Amato
ACTIVITY: Write and illustrate turtle poetry
Swimming against sand
Under the moon
Into whipping waves
Lesson Four: Activism -WRITING and SOCIAL STUDIES
Writing is an important way to try to get things changed in the world. If enough people write letters or sign petitions, things often improve!
It is important when writing a "persuasive" letter that you don't simply demand things. Think about how you would feel if you got a "demanding" letter. You probably would just get mad at being told what to do! People don't like to be told that they are wrong or dumb. So, if we want people to join our cause and help sea turtles, we need to approach them with kindness and help them understand why saving sea turtles is important to all of us. We should recognize that they might have different opinions and ask them to consider our viewpoint and help.
Activity: Write a letter to: President /Congressperson/Senator
UN Secretary General
Editor of Newspaper
Student body of your school
Anyone else you can think of who might help!
See "Activist corner" of STRP website for sample letters and topics.
Other ideas to promote sea turtle awareness:
Create a poster to display in your school.
Create a turtle protection postcard and mail to someone or create turtle-information bookmarks to give to friends and family.
Create a book about turtles and share it with others so they learn about protecting sea turtles, too.
Hold a sea turtle assembly at school on World Turtle Day, May 23.
Conduct a penny drive for the Sea Turtle Hospital.
Write a song...or write new lyrics to a tune they already know.
Make a model or create a diorama,
Learn "I love sea turtles" in sign language,
Find the turtle constellation in the sky.
Ancona, George. Turtle Watch. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987.
Biel, Timothy Levi. Zoobooks: Turtles. Salem, Illinois: World Color, 1993.
Blassingame, Wyatt. Wonders of the Turtle World. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1976.
Jacobs, Francine. Sea Turtles: a Coloring Book in English and Spanish. Washington, D.C.: Center for Environmental Education, 1981.
Dodd, Lynley. The Smallest Turtle. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Gareth Stevens, Inc., 1985 (fiction).
Schneider, Jeffrey. My Friend the Sea Turtle. San Francisco: Schneider Educational Products, 1993 (fiction).