Every time I see a leatherback sea turtle, it blows my mind how big they are.
Leatherbacks are by far the largest species of turtle in the world and the heaviest reptile on earth besides crocodiles. They can reach sizes of up to 5 to 7-feet long and weigh between 550 and 1550-pounds.
The species’ name is derived from their lack of a bony shell. Instead, their carapace is covered by a flexible, leather-like skin similar to soft-shell turtles found in freshwater.
In terms of range, they are the most widely distributed of all sea turtles, inhabiting nearly all marine waters around the world. They have been documented in the surrounding waters of Norway and Alaska and the southernmost tips of South Africa and New Zealand.
They feed almost entirely on jellyfish, but because of this, they are especially susceptible to accidentally consuming plastic bags found in the ocean, which is sadly a frequent enough occurrence that it’s considered a threat to the sustainability of the species.
Though they have few natural predators once they grow to maturity, baby turtles are quite vulnerable to predation, and a variety of other animals will eat them.
The species is considered endangered, though. Because of their enormous size, they get struck by ships and boats more commonly than other turtle species, and human development and artificial light pollution along shorelines where the turtles nest is also another threat to the species.
Because of their endangered status, every turtle matters, Which makes this story of beachgoers recently rallying together to save a stranded leatherback turtle on a beach in Cape Cod even more heartwarming.
The turtle was seen stranded on a mudflat near the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and once it became apparent the turtle was in distress, rescuers from the Sanctuary showed up to help.
According to CapeCod.com, the turtle became stranded when water temperatures dropped quickly and caused the cold-blooded animal to become disoriented. Unfortunately, it’s a somewhat common occurrence this time of year for turtles who have yet to leave Cape Cod Bay for warmer waters down south.
Additional help arrived on the scene from the Fund for Animal Welfare and the New England Aquarium, and the turtle was rescued using a heavy-duty cart typically reserved for transporting stranded whales and dolphins.
According to Dr. Kara Dodge, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium, the turtle was otherwise in overall good health despite the precarious situation.
“When working with stranded sea turtles in New England, it’s a rarity to have a turtle that is in such good condition.
We suspect this leatherback got disoriented in the tidal flats of Wellfleet, and we feel optimistic that it will survive, thanks to the collective rescue efforts of this fantastic group of colleagues,”
Dr. Dodge is optimistic the turtle will be okay and make a full recovery.
After a brief medical evaluation and receiving an injection full of supplemental vitamins and an anti-inflammatory drug, the turtle was moved to an area where it would have easier access to the channels it needed to navigate on its way to warmer waters elsewhere in the ocean. The turtle was also affixed with a tracking device that will help researchers monitor its movement and study the species’ migration patterns for years to come.
Had the turtle not been relocated, there were concerns it would have drifted into an oyster bed or become stuck somewhere rescuers would not be able to access.
Leatherbacks typically hang out in Cape Cod Bay through October before getting on their way, and they’re known to travel as much as 10,000 miles a year during their annual migrations.
“A leatherback sea turtle has been returned to the ocean after becoming stranded on a mudflat in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
It took dozens of volunteers from three conservation organisations to free the 270kg reptile. After a health assessment confirmed the disorientated turtle was in good health, it was released to cheers from the crowd of volunteers. The turtle was fitted with a tracking device that will monitor its migration patterns over the next decade.”