Minutes after emerging from underground nests, hatchling green turtles (Chelonia mydas L.) enter the sea and begin a migration towards the open ocean. To test the hypothesis that migrating hatchlings use wave cues to maintain their seaward headings, we released turtles offshore during unusual weather conditions when waves moved in atypical directions. Hatchlings swam into approaching waves in all experiments, even when doing so resulted in orientation back towards land. These data suggest that green turtle hatchlings normally maintain seaward headings early in the offshore migration by using wave propagation direction as an orientation cue. Because waves and swells reliably move towards shore in shallow coastal areas, swimming into waves usually results in movement towards the open sea.
The physiological mechanisms that underlie wave detection by sea turtle hatchlings are not known. Calculations indicate that, at the depth at which hatchlings swim, accelerations produced beneath typical waves and swells along the Florida coast are sufficient to be detected by the vertebrate inner ear. We therefore hypothesize that hatchlings determine wave direction while under water by monitoring the sequence of horizontal and vertical accelerations that occur as waves pass above.