Monday, July 13, 2009

A Tale of Two Leatherbacks

Leatherback turtle with pilot fish consort

The relentless rain, cold and fog of June hasn't deterred all Cape Cod visitors... leatherback turtles have returned and our first field day was a doozy! To set the scene: a rare day of light winds, calms seas, and plentiful sunshine on Nantucket Sound. The day began at 5 am and didn't end until nearly sunset as we worked with a leatherback off Harwich and then regrouped for a leatherback off Chatham. Biologists from New England Aquarium and Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, including our turtle vet Dr. Charlie Innis, rounded out the LPRC field team. Thanks to the gracious assistance of our fishermen collaborators Ernie and Mark, we were able to successfully examine, sample and flipper tag both turtles, and satellite tag one turtle.

Our satellite tagged turtle "Ethan" (named after Ernie's grandson) just before release

Coming up for a breath

The turtle went that way...

At 131 and 126.5 cm curved carapace (shell) length and about 400 pounds each, these two subadult leatherbacks are some of the smallest we have handled during our three year research project! This may not sound small but it is for leatherbacks, the largest living sea turtle and the second-largest reptile in the world (second only to the saltwater crocodile). These turtles surprised us given the lack of jellyfish inshore right now: leatherbacks eat jellyfish and may follow jellies to within a few hundred yards of the beach. But local fishermen tell me that few jellyfish have been seen since April, a stark contrast to July of 2008 when jellies (and hungry leatherbacks) were in abundant supply. It's still early in the season, so it remains to be seen if these two turtles signal the start of another big leatherback summer here off Cape Cod. Stay tuned!

So ends another beautiful day in the field (Wychmere Harbor, Harwich, MA)

Kara Dodge, Large Pelagics Research Lab Ph.D. student
All photos © Kara Dodge, Large Pelagics Research Center

All research activities conducted under NMFS permit #1557-03

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