By Beth Erickson, Save-A-Turtle Permitted Turtle Nest Surveyor in the Keys
Back on a beautiful fall day in Connecticut I went out fishing on Long Island Sound. My spot was halfway between Connecticut and New York, about 13miles out. As I headed in I saw something large floating in the distance. As I got closer I realized it was a huge turtle, a huge Leatherback. Heartbreaking though as it was dead. I have never seen a leatherback turtle in those waters after a lifetime of being on the water there. I knew I should report it so I took photos and contacted Mystic Aquarium. They wanted the photos and explained that it was not common to have a leatherback turtle that far into Long Island sound. This turtle had no visible signs of trauma. I was told it more than likely it died from ingesting a plastic bag as they look just like their primary food source, a jelly fish. Plastic bags, once ingested, cannot be digested or passed by an animal so it stays in the gut, ultimately killing them. How tragic.
This turtle eventually floated onto a beach in Connecticut and made the news as a “massive turtle washed up on shore”. Then it was off to a museum to eventually educate others as a display. I was still heartbroken for this beautiful creature which made me want to learn more.
The leatherback turtle is the most ancient species of living sea turtle, as well as the largest and heaviest living turtle in the world.They can reach lengths of 8 feet, weigh up to 1500 pounds. It is the fourth-heaviest modern reptile behind three crocodilians. It can easily be differentiated from other modern sea turtles by its lack of a bony shell, instead its carapace is covered by skin and oily flesh. It is so mysterious that scientists still do not know how old they get or even their age of sexual maturity. Some estimate they can live hundreds of years. What a magnificent creature.
I believe I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to even see this turtle although it was the worst situation possible. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.......I thought......
About one year later I went lobstering with friends in the Florida Keys. We were scuba diving in about 15-20 feet of water over on the Gulf side near the Content Keys. I was down near a big coral head with two other people. At one point I was a couple feet over from one friend. Our yellow mesh catch bag was near me, below me. I then got bumped kind of hard on my right side. I thought it was the other diver I was with. I turned thinking he needed something. I realized I wasn’t bumped by a person but a leatherback turtle! I almost had a heart attack. Oh my, I couldn’t believe it! It was so big it was unreal, even having large remoras swimming and attached to it. I was face to face with a leatherback turtle. I was thrilled but I instantly realized what she was doing. She was trying to get the lobster bag near me. I had flashbacks of the Connecticut leatherback floating in the water probably from eating a plastic bag. No way was this girl getting this lobster bag. I grabbed the bag as she went for it again. I put my hand out and touched her back to give her a gentle push away. (As if I could push this 1000lb turtle away). As my hand touched her leathery skin on her back on the side she gently yet so quickly and efficiently turned rolling slightly from my touch....giving me enough time to pull the bag up close to me. She was so in her element. I realized very quickly this is her home, I was the fish out of water. A minute later I watched her go up to the surface and then come back. I was enjoying every second of this. Forget lobsters, forget everything. A full grown mature magnificent leatherback turtle foraging near me. I couldn’t be happier. She hung out for a few minutes foraging around the coral and then she swam off with her entourage of followers.
When we came up to the surface everyone on the boats were freaking out asking if we saw the huge turtle. They couldn’t get over her size- just the size of her head alone. The two men I was with said they stayed close to the bottom when they saw the turtle because they were afraid of it because if it’s size alone. They told everyone how I pushed it away from grabbing the lobsters in the bag. They didn’t understand I wasn’t protecting the lobsters in a bag. I was protecting a turtle from eating a bag.
NOTE: Photo to the right above
is a rare leatherback hatchling found by FWC permitted ranger in the Florida Keys. It is illegal to handle or disturb sea turtles and hatchlings. The hatchling was immediately released by the ranger.
Click the link below to learn more about leatherbacks in Florida.