“I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at,” Leslie explains on the phone call. “At first, when I saw the head, I thought it was an alligator, but I knew that couldn’t be right. Then I realized it was a turtle. I had no idea they existed in B.C.”
This was the second leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) report to come into the Vancouver Aquarium’s B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network (which also accepts sea turtle sightings!) during a busy week this past August. Both sightings came from the Lippy Point area, off of northwestern Vancouver Island. Leslie called after talking to her neighbour Joanne, who was also fortunate enough to see and report this rare animal a few days earlier. Both women expressed shock, excitement and disbelief about what they had seen. Their reactions are quite typical among the select few mariners lucky enough to spot one of these elusive creatures. Unbeknownst to most British Columbians, the world’s largest sea turtle cruises our coast.
Today, October 15, is Pacific Leatherback Conservation Day. While many British Columbians will never be as lucky as Joanne and Leslie in spotting a leatherback, we can use today as a reminder that we all have a role to play in better protecting these endangered creatures.
So, what makes a leatherback so special?
- They’re ancient. Leatherbacks are the sole surviving member of the family Dermochelyidae whose lineage dates back to the Jurassic period (the same period when the Tyrannosaurus rex roamed the earth!). They have changed very little over the last 65 million years.
- They’re HUGE. Leatherbacks can reach up to three metres in length and may weigh over 900 kilograms – approximately the size and weight of a Volkswagen Beetle.
- They exist on a diet of jellyfish. A recent study from Dalhousie University estimates that leatherbacks in the Atlantic may consume an average 330 kilograms (wet mass) of jellyfishes per day and sometimes upwards of 840 kilograms per day!
- They can withstand the cold. Leatherback sea turtles are able to venture into cold waters in search of their jellyfish prey, thanks to their dark skin colour, large body size, thick layer of fat and the ability to control blood flow to reduce heat loss. These adaptations allow leatherbacks to maintain a body temperature as much as 18°C higher than the water around them!
- They are marathoners. The animals that appear off the coast of western North America actually nest in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. One animal was tracked across the Pacific Ocean from Indonesia to the coast of Oregon, covering at least 20,600 kilometers over the course of 647 days before the signal faded. That is the same distance as travelling from coast to coast in Canada at least four times!
- They visit our shores. To date, 154 leatherback sightings in B.C. waters have been compiled (including an additional sighting this year). They have been spotted as far north as Langara Island off of Haida Gwaii, although the majority are spotted off of western Vancouver Island.
Unfortunately, this magnificent species is in serious trouble. Some scientists estimate that the Pacific population has dropped nearly 95 per cent in the last 50 years, and they are listed as critically endangered. Excessive harvests of eggs and adults, incidental by-catch in fisheries and coastal development on nesting beaches have caused a catastrophic collapse in leatherback numbers. Ingestion of marine debris, such as plastic bags that resemble their jellyfish prey, is also an emerging threat. As a stark example of this decline, one critical nesting beach in Malaysia hosted more than 10,000 nests in 1956; only 37 were recorded were recorded by 1995.
Even with this bleak outlook, there are still ways to help this animal:
- Choose sustainable seafood that limits bycatch. Learn more at oceanwise.ca.
- Take action against marine debris by joining the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited. Learn more at shorelinecleanup.ca.
- Avoid using plastic bags to reduce the chance of them ending up in the ocean. Choose reusable cloth bags for all your shopping needs.
- Support sustainable ecotourism and tourist development while vacationing in sea turtle nesting areas.
You can directly participate in sea turtle conservation by taking a photo and immediately reporting any sightings of sea turtles and cetaceans to the Vancouver Aquarium’s B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network at 1-866-I-SAW-ONE or online at wildwhales.org. This initiative is a joint collaboration between the Aquarium and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.