By Alana Phillips
A leatherback sea turtle, tagged at her nesting beach in Indonesia, has been tracked by satellite across the Pacific Ocean to the coast of Oregon and back. The satellite tag, deployed by researchers from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, recorded at least 20,600 km over the course of 647 days before its signal faded.
Endangered leatherback sea turtles are the largest of all living turtles. In the Pacific Ocean, adult leatherbacks nest in the tropical beaches of Indonesia and Malaysia and migrate to feeding grounds off North America in the summer. In British Columbia, leatherbacks appear to be attracted by the large blooms of sea jellies that occur off our coast in the summer.
The turtle’s journey represents the longest recorded migration of any vertebrate animal. Even humpback whales, which make the longest migration for a mammal, swim at most about 8,000 km from the Antarctic to Central America. However, for the leatherback turtle, such a long journey is filled with peril.
All over the world, leatherback turtle populations are plummeting. The western Pacific leatherback turtle population has decreased from a thriving 91,000 in the 1980s to less than 5,000 today. The biggest threats to leatherbacks and other sea turtles include loss or degradation of their nesting beaches, direct harvesting of eggs and hunting of adults, and entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris. Sea turtles also mistake plastic bags for sea jellies, and many die when plastic bags fill their stomachs or choke them.
How can you help? First, buy only sustainable seafood and carry reusable shopping bags instead of plastic. Sightings of leatherback sea turtles in B.C. are vital for scientists to help save this critically endangered species. If you are lucky enough to see a sea turtle, let us know!