Leatherback Turtles Really Get Around

Did you know that one of the largest living reptiles on the planet can be found in New England’s ocean? Leatherback turtles, like the one shown above, can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and grow to 11 feet long. They are true ocean cruisers – you can tell by their giant flippers that they are built to cover great distances. They are at home from the tropics to Newfoundland and have been observed traveling almost 13 thousand miles in under two years. One of the reasons they wander is in search of their favorite food – sea jellies, and we have a lot of those in New England in the late summer and early fall.

As a vivid reminder that these sea-faring turtles enjoy our Gulf of Maine waters, last September an enormous leatherback was found, stranded, near the tip of Cape Cod. Normally, there is a well-oiled turtle rescue and rehabilitation machine in New EnglandMass Audubon Society volunteers transport the turtles to New England Aquarium facilities for treatment and release back into the wild – but they are used to dealing with much smaller turtles, usually well under 100 pounds. 

But the stranded leatherback turtle on the Cape was much larger – it was ill and underweight yet still weighed in at 655 pounds – and posed some unique challenges to rescuers and rehabilitators.  Using equipment normally reserved for dolphin rescues, volunteers managed to transport the leatherback to the care of the New England Aquarium. But that was just the beginning of the struggles to help the turtle. According to New England Aquarium’s Tony LaCasse, these turtles are open ocean animals that are not hardwired to recognize barriers, so they can crash into walls and hurt themselves. In addition to needing staff on hand to prevent turtle/wall collisions, this leatherback was so weak it needed help surfacing to breathe. Fortunately, the Aquarium was able to provide all the turtle needed to begin its recovery. You can read more about how the Aquarium handled this huge animal with extraordinary effort and care on their rescue blog.

After two staff and labor intensive days of caring for the leatherback, the experts at the Aquarium decided that releasing him back to the wild would give him the best chance of survival. They fitted the turtle with a satellite tag to learn more about his recovery and behavior, then released him on the “Sound side” of the Cape, where he would not be at risk of getting trapped in Cape Cod Bay.

Once released, the leatherback headed straight for the east end of Nantucket, a spot known for having a high concentration of sea jellies. After that, he quickly headed south to the relatively warmer waters of coastal New Jersey, and eventually moved on to Bermuda. The last time Aquarium scientists checked on the turtle, he was still alive and on the move.

It is a heartening story, and a good reminder of the amazing things that lie beneath New England’s waves.