Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
by Martha Crooker, April 20, 2002
On Saturday, April 20, the Cape Lookout Photographic Expedition sponsored by the North Carolina Maritime Museum, was interrupted by a rare and unfortunate event.Shortly before 5pm, Keith Rittmaster, Natural Science Curator and Field Studies Program Director, and museum volunteer Hugh Wilde, were preparing to make a boat run to Harker’s Island to pick up developed film, when Wilde spotted something splashing off the docks in Cape Lookout Bight.
On close investigation, Keith and Hugh discovered that an endangered leatherback sea turtle had become entrapped in a sink gill net. The struggling turtle was unable to surface for air. Although sea turtles are often submerged for long periods of time, this turtle appeared to be under a great deal of stress.
The two men were able to free the turtle just enough to allow it to surface and to breath. Keith assessed the situation and knew they needed more help if the rescue attempt would be successful.
A different boat was obtained, several people from the photographic expedition were summoned to assist, other visitors at the cape stood by to help, and still others began to document the rescue attempt with cameras. From the boat, Keith and crew were able to cut the net and guide the entangled turtle to shore. Indeed, the turtle headed to shore on his own accord, pulling the boat to shallower water.
Leatherback sea turtles are listed on the Federal Endangered Species List, and thus protected by the Endangered Species Act. Leatherbacks are the largest species of sea turtles, and are most often found in tropical waters. In the spring, Keith often sees leatherbacks first, before he sees loggerhead turtles, the species he most frequently encounters.
For the observers on shore, it appeared that every move counted in freeing the turtle from the net. Keith spoke to the crowd as he worked, sharing facts about the leatherback species. He addressed issues that relate to conflicts between commercial fishing and bycatch. He expressed empathy for the fisherman whose net he damaged while freeing the turtle. One of the volunteers assisting offered to ‘pass the hat’ to collect money to repair the net. Keith acknowledged this generous offer and said he would attempt to contact the owner.
Keith took the opportunity to take measurements of the turtle while museum volunteer Allen Brooks recorded the data. This particular turtle, a male, was nearly six feet long and it’s age estimated to be between ten and twenty years old
Rittmaster, who holds a permit to tag sea turtles, inserted an imbedded, lifelong tag on the turtle, as well as two external tags. These tags are crucial for research and future marine conservation measures.
The turtle appeared unharmed by the ordeal in the gill net, and after measurements were taken and information recorded, the turtle was guided back to open water. Everyone stepped aside to watch the turtle plod from the shore, to deeper water, then disappear below the surface.
Relief and joy spread among the rescuers, the photographers, and the bystanders. After having taken part in such a successful event in marine conservation, we all knew we had witnessed a rare and spectacular rescue. It was obvious to all who watched the rescue that Keith responded in the only appropriate manner. Any passerby would have attempted to free the turtle. Had not Keith freed the turtle, the owner of the net would have found a carcass of a rare sea turtle to deal with, and in the extracting process, would likely have damaged the net. One less sea turtle, why does that matter?
Leatherback sea turtles feed on jellyfish. Their predators are killer whales and sharks (and man). Protecting endangered sea turtles does matter because they are vital to the marine food web and healthy ecosystems. This rare leatherback sea turtle was worthy of being set free.
Rescue boat skippered by John Atkins approaches leatherback sea turtle struggling in net.
Netted leatherback sea turtle struggling to surface for air by rescue boat.
Leatherback sea turtle ashore with net still attached
Using large calipers to measure straight carapace length (137cm) and width (75cm). Note remora that stayed attached throughout rescue.
Close-up of turtle’s head. The pink spots on top can be used in Photo-ID. CLSP has started a leatherback catalog.
Rescued leatherback sea turtle returns to sea – YEAH!!
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