On your mark! Get set! Swim to the Caribbean!
The contestants are chunky to say the least, but to their celebrity coaches and sponsors they are things of beauty: 11 endangered leatherback sea turtles, competing to be the first to swim from their chilly feeding grounds off the Canadian Atlantic coast to their breeding grounds in the Caribbean.
The Great Turtle Race starts April 16, but the handicapping began early, with boosters for massive entrants Nightswimmer and Backspacer boasting that they were sure to win.
“Our turtle, Nightswimmer — huge, beautiful,” said Mike Mills, bass player with alternative pop/rock group R.E.M., which is sponsoring the big male racer. “Of course with (former U.S. Olympic champion swimmer) Janet Evans as coach I really don’t see how we can lose.”
Evans said that as a distance swimmer, she can relate to Nightswimmer’s challenge. Because he weighs 970 pounds, she said, “I’m going to try to get him to use his size to move through the water quickly and to conserve some energy, because he really has a long way to go.”
Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau is coaching female competitor Backspacer, sponsored by alternative rock group Pearl Jam. He had nothing but praise for her training regimen.
“She’s bulked up on jellyfish to a stout 825 pounds, but that being said she is in her peak aerobic shape,” Shanteau said on a telephone conference call promoting the race. “You guys try swimming 4,000 miles down the coast and doing it all lugging around a 1000-pound shell!”
To show what good condition Backspacer is in, Shanteau said, “She’s almost able to do her first sit-up, which for a turtle I think is pretty good … I’ve got faith in our girl. She’s put in the work, she’s put in the training, she’s going to come out on top.”
The competitors should complete the 4,000 mile journey in about 14 days, though the general migrating period lasts four to six months. They’ll be tracked as they swim with satellite transmitters attached to their leathery backs, which will let scientists and fans know not just where they are but how cold the water is and how deep the turtles are diving.
Organized by National Geographic, Conservation International, the race aims to raise awareness of the leatherbacks’ endangered status. This is the first time the event has taken place in the Atlantic; the previous two turtle races have taken place in the Pacific.
Photo: The Canadian Sea Turtle Network (Leatherback turtle with satellite transmitter, off Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 24, 2008)