Dear Matthew Alice:
Please explain why there are large and small turtles painted on the bicycle path going out to the Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma.
Janet E. Hagen, San Diego
The rare Southern California race of the green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas fabulosus, has used Point Loma as its breeding grounds for many thousands of years. These large reptiles come to land only to lay their eggs; the female digs a pit in the sand, deposits the eggs, covers them, and returns to the ocean, leaving the eggs to the mercy of tide and predators. This system worked quite well until recently, when the federal government first dedicated part of the point as a national cemetery, then the military moved in with a submarine base and an oceanic study center. The ancient and well-trodden route the turtles followed to their egg-laying sites — along the ridge roughly from what is now Point Loma College to the national monument at the southern tip – began to be subject to heavy foot and vehicular traffic, and the turtle population declined dramatically (although the Navy commissary found the squashed turtles provided a ready source for a popular and heretofore expensive delicacy, turtle soup). Conservationists spoke out against the slaughter. Navy biologists, in an attempt to aid the harried reptiles, came up with a plan: part of the historic turtle route was paralleled by Catalina Boulevard, and the biologists decided to set off part of the roadway as a protected area for use only by turtles. To designate this area, and to assist the turtles in their by-now confused search for the egg-laying grounds, the scientists painted yellow turtles along the path. Supposedly both the turtles and the public will recognize and respect these markers.
That’s my theory. But Tom LaPazza, the long-distance running chairman of the San Diego Track Club, has a different explanation for the yellow turtles. He says they were painted by members of the track club to mark distances for the many runners who utilize the bike path. According to LaPazza, at least six years ago a small turtle was placed every quarter mile and a large turtle every half mile, beginning at the gate, for a distance of two and a half miles. This signals to the jogger the distance he has covered, and eliminates the practice runners had followed of scrawling their own distance markers in the road. As for why a turtle was used as a symbol, LaPazza is not sure, but he guesses it is some kind of visual pun – you know, like the tortoise and the hare. To me the whole thing sounds kind of fishy.