A brown mound resembling a Volkswagen beetle moves past the boat. It’s a leatherback sea turtle, one of six species of endangered migrating turtles one might see in southern New England at this time of year.
Because all sea turtles are so rare and encounter so many human-made obstacles, people along the developed Northeastern coast ought to know where they swim and what they look like, because each year ordinary citizens save them from harm. Turtles face trouble on their long trips: boat propellers, fishing gear, garbage, and other hazards.
Mystic Aquarium’s staff rescued two sea turtles this year. The first was a young Kemp's ridley turtle that had washed onto the beach, upside down, with a fishing lure larger than the length of its body through the side of its mouth. The gear removed, the turtle now is doing well on antibiotics. (See the Patch video)
The aquarium also rescued a green sea turtle about the size of a dinner plate that had become entangled with fishing lines that had cut into its flippers and neck. That animal is now recuperating at the New England Aquarium in Boston.
The giant leatherback
Leatherbacks seem to turn up more frequently in the the Connecticut ocean than do other sea turtle species, although no leatherbacks live at the Mystic Aquarium. Leatherbacks are so large that they usually don’t do too well in captivity. But they are amazing. Not only can they travel extreme distances, Tuttle said; they can regulate their body temperatures and survive in much colder waters than other sea turtles. Leatherbacks eat only jellyfish (more properly called “jellies”) and can mistake floating plastic bags for food.
Their size means they encounter trouble near shore. “This is the time of year we receive quite a few leatherback calls,” Tuttle said. “Last year we responded to one caught in fishing gear.”
Be on the alert for turtles
Six of the world’s seven sea-turtle species swim in the Northeast: the green, loggerhead, Kemp's ridley, olive ridley, hawksbill, and the leatherback. They swim far north in the summer but nest anywhere from North Carolina and further south. They will swim either in open ocean or protected areas such as Long Island Sound.
In a few weeks, sea turtles begin long trips to warmer waters, where they nest and lay eggs. They can swim astonishing distances, making that that trotted more than 1,000 miles into Connecticut seem lazy. Scientists once tracked a leatherback that paddled from Indonesia to Oregon. Most sea turtles probably confine themselves to one hemisphere.
As they travel, all you might see from a boat is a head sticking up for air. A sea turtle on the beach signals trouble. They don’t want to be on the beach in the northern regions and at this time of year.
“This year we responded to calls about quite a few that were stranded dead—washed up on beaches,” said Allison Tuttle, staff veterinarian and director of animal care for the aquarium. “People should know that if they see a sea turtle on the beach, whether it’s alive or dead, they should not approach it. They should call our stranding program. If it’s a live turtle, they should call right away.” Even if dead, the aquarium staff wants to know to compile information for the federal government. Tuttle said people should not do anything to the carcasses.
To see a sea turtle in action, visit one of the popular attractions at Mystic Aquarium, the green sea turtle named Charlotte. Three years ago off the coast of Georgia, she suffered a propeller slice that damaged her spinal cord. Aquarium staff treated her, and she still might recover enough to be released into the ocean. For now, though, Charlotte has trouble with her digestive system, always accumulating gas, and so she swims with her read end up. But she’s much beloved as an ambassador for her species.
Also at the aquarium are young loggerheads. These hatched at the aquarium from eggs collected from a nest where something went wrong. Some of the hatchlings the aquarium released right away, Tuttle said. Others they are keeping until they grow as large as a dinner plate, a size that ensures a better survival rate. Depending on the temperature, such growth can take one or more years. “If you can get them up to dinner plate size all of a sudden they are a lot less likely to be eaten,” she said.
To help their odds further, people should give sea turtles space out on the water. “You may see a shell come up,” Tuttle said. “When a large leatherback sea turtle comes up, it might look like Volkswagen beetle coming up. Sometimes you might just see the head coming up to breathe. Sometimes the younger turtles will be sleeping, at the top of the water resting their flippers on their shell.”
Slow down, don’t approach them, and don’t try to feed them. They’re on their way to warmer climates.