Eleven leatherback turtles are swimming across the Pacific Ocean to the Galapagos Islands in a "race" that will be tracked online to draw attention to the plight of the critically endangered creatures, which have inhabited the oceans for 100 million years.
The turtles have been tagged with satellite communication devices that give their positions as they head south from their nesting sites on Costa Rica's Playa Grande beach to feeding grounds near the Galapagos, about 950 miles away.
Online participants can choose a turtle and then, starting on Monday, track the race at www.greatturtlerace.com. Corporate sponsors have adopted some turtles, and participants are asked to donate as well. The winner will be the turtle that travels farthest by April 29.
One turtle was even named after TV comedian Stephen Colbert.
"Students were up all night with me waiting for turtles to arrive on the beach at Playa Grande," George Shillinger, a race co-founder and researcher at Stanford University's Tagging of Pacific Predators program, said in a statement. "We talked about our favorite late-night shows, and shortly thereafter a massive ambassador for the species emerged from the sea. She was magnificent, and we decided to name her after Stephen Colbert. We call her Stephanie Colburtle."
Colbert welcomed the honor. "I'm a huge fan of shelled reptiles," he said this week on his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. "Normally, I'm no endangered species hugger ... but this year, nation, one of those 11 turtles is named after me."
"Folks, there's my beautiful adopted daughter!" he said, showing a photograph of a leatherback turtle on the screen.
"Next to an eagle, a turtle is a perfect animal to represent me," he said, later referring to leatherbacks as "eagles of the sea."
"It's fascinating to consider that we are able to bring together these prehistoric animals with such cutting-edge science," said Shillinger. "The data provides a nearly real-time ‘turtle’s-eye view’ of animal behavior in relation to environmental change."
The tags will transmit data every few minutes as the leatherbacks surface to breathe.
Conservationists say 95 percent of leatherbacks in the Pacific Ocean have vanished in the last 20 years due to human activity like fishing, poaching of their eggs and building near their nests, and that they could become extinct in the next decade.
Thousands of leatherbacks nested at Playa Grande 10 years ago but the number has dropped to below 100 in the last five years.
Leatherbacks, which can reach a shell length of nearly 6 feet and weigh 1,500 pounds, often die after being entangled in fishing lines and nets. Others choke on plastic bags, wrongly believing they are jellyfish, which are a delicacy for turtles.
The Galapagos Islands, which lie west of Ecuador, are home to hundreds of unique animal species, including giant tortoises, exotic birds and iguanas. The variety of natural life there inspired 19th Century British naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.
The leatherback race will not be live because the turtles left Costa Rica at different times. Instead, the Web site will provide a day-to-day showing of the first 14 days of their journeys simultaneously as if they were racing.
The event will raise funds to protect Playa Grande. It is being organized by Conservation International, Costa Rica's environment ministry, the Leatherback Trust and the Tagging of Pacific Predators program.