The Long Journey of the Leatherback Turtle

Apr 4, 2008 8:02pm

There are migratory animals in this world, and then there are leatherback turtles.  Scientists have tracked one 13,000 miles — halfway across the world — apparently in search of food. We did a World News piece on the leatherbacks, and the work being done on them by researchers at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. "They really are a remarkable creature and we don’t know a lot about them,” said NOAA’s Peter Dutton. The turtles are hard to track because they’re remarkably difficult to find in the ocean.  Scientists say the turtles are solitary travelers, often diving thousands of feet, then surfacing only briefly for air. So the scientists set out by boat and chase plane to find turtles where they could.  Peter’s brother John Dutton, a filmmaker, chronicled the search for a documentary called "Jurassic Journey."   A link to his production company is HERE; excerpts from "Jurassic Journey" are HERE, and they’re worth watching. "It is a cryptic, seldom-seen species," said Scott Benson, Peter Dutton’s research colleague.  "Many people here" — even on the staff at the Science Center, he said — "have never seen this animal." In a report to a recent conference, the scientists said they successfully attached satellite transmitters to nine leatherbacks in the Pacific.  They knew the turtles were migratory animals, but there was one that surprised them. Over a period of 695 days, it swam from Papua, Indonesia…northeast across the Pacific to Hawaii…and on to the coast of Oregon, where it stopped to feast on jellyfish, the staple of the leatherbacks’ diet. Then it headed back toward Hawaii, and it probably went beyond, but by then the transmitter finally failed.  12,774 miles, sometimes at a pace of 35 miles a day.  This is of more than passing curiosity.  Leatherbacks are considered threatened on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the U.S.  Some scientists think their numbers in the Pacific have declined 95 percent, as people in tropical countries catch them on the beaches where they lay their eggs, and fishing boats snare them as "bycatch" — accidental victims — in their nets.  More information is at Seaturtle.org The long migration, may, in fact, help protect them.  It spreads them around, so that if conditions are bad in one place, other turtles may survive elsewhere.  How do they live on the long journey, if the only food they really want is the jellyfish in one part of the ocean? "Oh, they snack," Scott Benson told me.  "Think of yourself on a long car trip.  You may pull into a McDonald’s on the way, but the real meal is at grandma’s house when you get there." (World Wildlife Fund, N.J.Tangkepayung/AP Photo)

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