Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Leatherback Turtles: Saving Hatchlings

Leatherback Turtle Hatchling on Jupiter Island Beach
Another rainy day is in store and Chris and I headed off to the beach earlier than normal to try to grab some beach time before the afternoon rains become oppressive.

I attempted snorkeling in the too rough waters, only to realize after about 15 minutes that my attempts to see or do anything meaningful were futile. So I wandered the beach, which we had all to ourselves, looking for shells and taking pictures, until the battery on the camera expired, of birds and critters.
Second Leatherback Hatchling of the Day

We relaxed on the beach for a few hours before another couple appeared on the beach. They appeared intently interested in something on the beach and we considered the possibility of a turtle nest eruption, whereby a couple of dozen turtle hatchlings make the mad dash for the ocean and begin swimming for the deep water to begin their lives, providing they do not become a snack for some predator.

As we wandered over, it was apparent that something was indeed happening. Chris was in the lead and upon arriving at their location she began emphatically motioning for me to hurry.

Arriving at the scene, it was not an eruption underway, but rather one lone straggler that had become entangled in fishing line on the beach and unable to make its way to the surf with its nest mates. AND, it was a leatherback. The first leatherback that either Chris or I had seen in the wild. For a hatchling, it was big compared to the green turtles and loggerhead turtles that we had watched make their way into the ocean on other occasions.

Leatherback Turtles are the fourth largest modern reptiles. And interesting fact that I didn't know until I did some research for this article. I know that they are rare in the wild and I have never seen an adult leatherback. Their food of choice is jellyfish--which helps to keep the jellyfish population under control.

This hatchling needed help. Chris knew what to do. I proposed carrying it into the surf to let it get on its way. That turned out to be a bad idea as we learned later its probability of survival was near zero. The better idea was to take it to the Loggerhead Marine Wildlife Center--a few miles down the road. And so converting a dive mask container into a turtle transport device we headed off. The staff at the Center was elated to receive the leatherback hatchling.

Chris was rewarded with a nice certificate for her efforts and we learned that we should not transport the hatchlings in sand covered with water, but rather, just damp sand.  That was important because we decided to return to the beach and scour the debris to see if any other leatherback hatchlings were similarly entangled.

As it turns out, upon returning to the beach and scouring the other debris we indeed found another ensnared hatchling which appeared to have given up hope of making it to the sea. We scoured the area thoroughly and were reasonably convinced that no other hatchlings remained on the beach. I counted 20 sets of tracks that ended at the waters edge--and with these two, the nest produced about 22 turtles. I am not sure how many of the other 20 will survive, but I know these two have a great chance of making it because they both arrived at the rescue center where they will be boated out to the deep water and will skip the feeding frenzy off the beach that the other 20 had to endure to make it to the relative safety of the deeper water.

Chris is a hero--at least for these two turtles, well, and of course to me.

-- Bob Doan, writing from Jupiter, FL

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