Over the past week, the New England Aquarium pulled off the dramatic rescue, rehabilitation and release of a 655-pound, 7-foot leatherback sea turtle which had stranded on Cape Cod (as seen in the video above). The prehistoric-looking reptile was found suffering from dehydration and shock with a significant portion of its left-front flipper missing, an injury the Aquarium said was consistent with entanglement in fishing gear, a sadly common occurrence with these severely threatened animals.
Leatherbacks are long-distance swimmers, using their giant paddle-like flippers to propel them over vast distances. This turtle from the Western Atlantic population travels all the way from the white sandy beaches of the Caribbean to the jellyfish-rich waters of New England each year, and may even swim as far north as Newfoundland. After a weekend being nursed back to health by aquarium staff, this beleaguered leatherback, which veterinarians estimated to be around 25 to 30 years old, was released off of Cape Cod on Sunday.
If the turtle survives, it will be a cheerful chapter in an increasingly desperate story about a species that has survived for a hundred million years but faces extinction in the coming decades. As many as 2,300 leatherbacks may have died at the hands of commercial fishing activities each year throughout the 1990s. Aside from entanglement in fishing gear, many turtles also face threats from poaching and countless die from ingesting plastic. Leatherbacks, whose throats are lined with backward-pointing spines to prevent swallowed jellyfish from escaping, are especially vulnerable to choking on plastic bags, which they mistake for their favorite prey.
But there is hope for the leatherback sea turtle. In 2007, Oceana petitioned the federal government to designate critical habitat for off the U.S. West Coast, where Pacific populations have plummeted by as much as 80% in recent decades. In response, earlier this year, The National Marine Fisheries Service finalized protection of almost 42,000 square miles of protected ocean habitat off the shores of Washington, Oregon and California for the endangered turtle. Turtles arrive in these areas each year after swimming as far as 6,000 miles across the open ocean from nests in Indonesia. This is the first permanent safe haven designated for leatherbacks in U.S. waters. The National Marine Fisheries Service has yet to designate similar critical habitat for loggerhead turtles in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans even though they are required by law to do so.
Help Oceana continue to fight for this incredible animal, the largest turtle and one of the largest living reptiles on Earth.
Leatherback sea turtles are the largest species of marine turtle and the only one to lack a hard shell made of scales.
Instead, these gentle giants have a softer shell made of bone and skin with seven ridges along their backs. Also unlike other sea turtles, leatherbacks do not have claws on their front flippers.
Even more unusual is that leatherbacks, unlike most reptiles, have some control over their body temperatures, making them warm-blooded. They have a thick layer of fat under their skin and a special blood supply system in their shoulders that can keep them warmer than the water around them, which means they can live both further away from the tropics and in deeper waters than other sea turtles.
Leatherback sea turtles eat mostly jellyfish, and are equipped with special spikes in their throats to keep the slimy creatures from escaping. Their jellyfish-heavy diet probably contributes to reports of leatherback turtle flesh sometimes being toxic to humans.
Like other sea turtles, leatherback turtles lay their eggs on sandy beaches, however, about 20% are “vanos,” or small, yolkless eggs that will never hatch. All the eggs in a clutch are either masculine or feminine—do you know what determines the gender of the eggs? It’s this week’s trivia question on Twitter, so if you live in the US answer now for your chance to win!
Leatherback sea turtles are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. Threats include being entangled in fishing gear; human collection of eggs and hunting of adult turtles for meat and shell; ingestion of plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish; and the effects of climate change on nesting behavior and success. Atlantic populations are considered slightly healthier than Pacific populations, which have seen several important collapses since scientists began tracking sea turtles.
Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch, protecting habitat, and promoting legislation that keeps turtles safe.
You can learn more about leatherback sea turtles from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.
Guest blogger Jon Bowermaster is a writer and filmmaker. In this post, Jon reports on the dangers of ocean acidification.
Of all the threats to the planet’s ocean, none may be more insidious or have longer-term impact than ocean acidification. It is also the least understood of all the potential harms.
Admittedly it is far easier to visualize plastic afloat on the surface of the Pacific or vast tracts of the Atlantic nearly devoid of fish than a chemical imbalance. But it is the change of acidity that may already be the ocean’s worst enemy.
Try this for a visualization, maybe it will help: 24 million tons of carbon dioxide created by the burning of fossil fuels – or the equivalent of 24 million Volkswagens – are dumped into the world’s ocean every single day.
On top of destroying coral reefs (the equivalent of wiping out rain forests on land) and killing off shellfish beds including mussels and oysters, a new report out of the U.K. suggests that the so-called “evil twin” of global warming is responsible for some fish losing their sense of smell and hearing.
The crew aboard the Latitude has successfully completed the experiment to map the oil plume around the Deepwater Horizon. They successfully deployed 16 buoys up to 6,000 feet deep, and were able to retrieve 90% of the buoys and hundreds of sensors.
Oceana’s Pacific science director Dr. Jeff Short will now analyze the presence and concentration of toxic hydrocarbons surrounding BP's Deepwater Horizon wellhead, which noone has yet done.
Here’s Will’s final report, and stay tuned for the next leg of the expedition, in which the crew will use a deep-sea ROV to explore important habitat areas near the Deepwater Horizon.
Saturday, September 4, 2010
Another hard working day notched into the belt. After today the Oceana team can check three more moorings off the list. Today started in similar fashion as the last few days: wake up early, eat breakfast and hoist a mooring. What separated today from the others were jellyfish and canyons.
To this point the Oceana team has been relatively lucky in terms of accidents and painful encounters. Yet today after an “easy” first set, we went for another, and boy did we get a surprise. Everything was normal at first, and then it happened. Jellyfish started floating past the line. Minutes later, as the crew pulled the line through the winch, jelly slime began to pass through hands. Unnoticed at first, soon people began to squirm.
Jellyfish sting their prey using nematocysts which are their stinging structures located in specialized cells called cindocytes. In our case the stinging structures of the jellies wrapped around the long line and in some cases stuck. As the crew pulled in the line the cindocytes transferred from the rope to the gloves of the team. Minutes later the fun ensued. When nematocysts pierce the skin they inject venom. The venom is very uncomfortable, and sometimes requires medical assistance. Luckily for us no such medical assistance was needed, but we all immediately washed off and changed clothes after the set.
Today’s FOTD involves a short story.
A few years ago, I was stung by a jellyfish while taking my first surfing lesson in Australia. It hurt so much that I could hardly walk! We kept a close watch on my breathing while I was rushed to a pharmacy to get ice and some truly magical anti-sting medication. (Thank goodness for that stuff!) After looking at my swollen and scarred legs, my instructor guessed that though I never saw my attacker, it was likely a young box jellyfish.