When  you mention “sea turtle”, images of tropical blue waters and white sand beaches are likely to come to mind ‒ not the rocky shores of British Columbia’s coast. And while it’s true that you are more likely to find many species of sea turtles in warmer regions of the world, the gargantuan leatherback sea turtle can also be found off our temperate shores.

As reported last year in the journal Nature, there’s a specific reason why leatherbacks are being spotted in this area. Leatherbacks travelling from the South Pacific and Southeast Asia target the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem (CCLME) and the North Pacific transition zone marine ecosystem to find their jelly prey.  This rich productive zone extends from Mexico all the way up to B.C.

The coast of California sees the highest number of leatherbacks in this zone. So far, the Leatherback Watch program has had nearly 20 reports in Pacific American waters in 2012.  While California may be the epicenter of leatherback activity on the west coast of North America, each year, a few turtles are sighted in our coastal waters and reported to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. Most of the sightings in B.C. occur in August and September. This year, we are still awaiting our first confirmed report, though a few whisperings of possible sightings have come in second-hand.

Leatherbacks are ancient creatures, having roamed the world’s oceans for almost 70 million years.  Unfortunately, the leatherbacks in the Pacific are critically endangered.  Some scientists estimate that the population has dropped nearly 95% in the last 50 years.  One critical nesting beach in Malaysia hosted over 10,000 nests in 1956.  By 1995, only 37 were recorded.  Learn more about threats to leatherbacks here.

Have you seen a leatherback?

-Leatherbacks are large.  Some individuals have been measured at 3 m long and weighing over 900 kg.  That is the size of a small car!

-Their shell doesn’t have the typical scutes (scales) of other sea turtles.  Instead it has parallel ridges that are covered in a dark, leathery connective tissue.

-Leatherbacks are usually dark in colour with white-ish spots

-A pink or orange-ish spot in located on the back of their otherwise dark head

-When surfacing, often only the head and the very front of the carapace (shell) are seen

-As jellies are their primary prey, many observers note high numbers of jellies near the location of a leatherback sighting

If you spot a sea turtle in B.C., please take a photo and let us know.  Report your sightings to 1-866-I-SAW-ONE or wildwhales.org right away. Your information will provide critical information on the timing of turtle visits, behaviour and distribution.

J. Rusack