Watch this beautiful video of Lula by filmmaker, Boombaye
The Ancient Past
Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle species (up to 6 ft long, 2000 lbs), arguably not the prettiest, but certainly the deepest divers. While not as old as sharks at 320 million years (here even before trees), leatherbacks, like all sea turtle species, are ancient creatures–over 100 million years on the planet.
Archelon skeleton, an ancient sea turtle, 80.5 million years old. Photo Wikipedia, from the Peabody Museum at Yale.
The ancient Archelon above, believed to be a direct ancestor to the leatherback, was swimming the oceans in what is now South Dakota.
Fast forward–skidding toward the cliff?
Here we sit 100 million years later, staring into the barrel of extinction for the glorious, ponderous Pacific leatherback. Important Western Pacific nesting sites have dropped 78% in 30 years. Higher global temps warm nesting sands, leading to male-only hatches.
Leatherback sea turtle
Photo: Ryan Somma, Creative Commons
Recognizing the Pacific leatherback’s peril and the importance of jellyfish feeding grounds off the Golden State (a stunning 7,000-mile migration), legislators placed restrictions on fishing practices and created fishing exclusion zones along the California coast. Oregon and Washington adopted similar restrictions in an effort to protect and extend loggerhead migration and feeding territory. In 2012, California designated the Pacific leatherback our State Marine Mammal. The annual celebration day, October 15th, is a chance to remember they’re here, but more importantly to recognize their escalating decline and double down on conservation efforts. Nothing short of rapier-sharp vigilance, hard work, and strong education efforts will ensure the Pacific loggerheads’ future.
Let’s start with the fun (subtext: cheerful education leads to action).
Photograph: Scott Benson NOAA
2) Spread the word! Visit Sea Turtle Conservation Program’s list of celebration ideas. I’ve taken the pledge, visited, “Liked,” and shared the Leatherback’s Celebration Facebook page. Read, share or gift books about sea turtles. Fiction or non-fiction, there’s something out there for all ages.
3) Collect and cut out the plastic! Plastic and beach debris collection is paramount to keeping litter out of the mouths and guts of sea turtles (leatherbacks are particularly prone to eating any plastic, including balloons, that looks like a jellyfish). Beach debris can block hatchlings from reaching the ocean and make them more vulnerable to predators.
A challenge: try going without plastic for 1 week. track how much and what plastic you avoided using or buying. Post what you learned here, your own blog, Facebook, etc. What can you turn into permanent changes to your plastic use? My Plastic Free Life is an encouraging and practical blog (and book) to make the shift a whole lot easier. Here are two products I’ve adopted. Eliminated plastic shampoo and cream rinse bottles and plastic floss container. Love both products.
Almost plastic free. Floss roll is in a paper box, but uses a little plastic bag inside to keep the mint oil fresher, longer. Unflavored floss and non-plastic toothbrush next on the list.
Celebrating=balloons, right? WRONG! Balloons and their ribbons deplete scarce and dwindling helium supplies (critical to medicine and science), drift for miles, and end up as deadly trash for sea turtles, mammal marine life, and birds. Balloons Blow has festive, safe alternatives and more information.
4) Food fun. Bake dinner rolls, breakfast treats, or breads in the shape of sea turtles to give to friends and family with info about loggerheads and the Celebration Day.
Boudin Bakery Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, CA © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons.
How about turtle cupcakes to give out in class with a note asking people to reduce plastic use and to learn about sea turtles. Give them a link or three to your favorite leatherback websites, photos, or articles.
Healthier alternatives? Make a turtle-shaped fruit bowl from a watermelon. Invite the neighborhood in. Here’s a charming, and edible, fable about how land turtles went to the sea (complete with carved vegetable and egg turtle characters and curry recipe) from VegSpinz.
5) Artistic Fun. Halloween’s coming. Carve a turtle image into your pumpkin and hand out info on how balloons can turn into real-life “ghouls” for wildlife.
see link above for more ideas, or create your own
6) Donate. Leatherback sea turtles, like every endangered species, hugely depend on us human beings stepping up to solve problems driving them to extinction. Species celebration days are reminders of our part and our responsibilities.
Give, if you can, money, time, and/or talent to your favorite sea turtle organizations. Two that work for Pacific leatherbacks are Sea Turtle Restoration Project, Sea Turtles Forever and See Turtles (eco trips to work with leatherbacks).
Re-post this blog or find others. Then reach deeper and farther. If petitions cross your social media or e-mail, ones asking governments to enforce turtle protection laws, please read and consider signing because…
Threats to leatherbacks (and many other sea turtles) continue to grow:
Egg and turtle predation: by humans and animals. Poaching (with increasing links to drug use and trafficking) in third-world countries tops the list of species decline. Quasi-legal egg collection is sometimes part of agreements between locals and turtle conservationists who share the eggs for mutual benefit (80%/20% for example in Guatamala). One group for livelihood and food. The other for hatch and release.
Longline and shrimp bottom trawl shrimp fishing (pelagic longline fishing is now banned off CA, OR, and WA coast).
However, “Spiraling loggerhead deaths (are) linked to fishing gear off Baja California” October 2, 2013. “This year, 705 dead loggerheads were reported by officials”… in two months. “Scientists say the official numbers are far below the reality.”
leatherback caught in long-line fishing gear. Goes from being a turtle to being “by-catch” of the fishing industry. This turtle was cut free and returned to life as a turtle. Photo by Philip Miller Creative Commons via Seaturtle.org
Up to half the leatherback turtles each year are caught and killed or injured in longline fisheries. They continue to drown in shrimp nets due to lack of Turtle Excluder Device rule enforcement and low fines. Longline targets migratory fish species: tuna, swordfish, and halibut and the rapid reduction in the numbers of Pacific leatherbacks may be telling us current regs and practices aren’t working.
Marine pollution: After fishing, THE MAJOR CAUSE OF DEATH among adult leatherbacks: plastic bags, styrofoam, and other marine debris that mimic their food–jellyfish. Entanglement and drowning in fishing gear, oil spills, and boat strikes also take their toll.
Beach development: Increased erosion and night lights disorient hatchlings who head toward the brightest light, their guide to the horizon and water. They end up in someone’s patio or mired in dune grass instead.
Sea Turtles Forever has “established a Sea Turtle Hotline for people to report sea turtle sightings in the Northeastern Pacific foraging areas. Please call 1-503-739-1446 or e-mail us at email@example.com to report a sea turtle sighting in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean or on any Canadian, Washington, Oregon or California Beaches.”
Other information sources used in this blog.
Marc Carvajal, San Francisco State University (The Biogeography of Leatherback Sea Turtles); Sea Turtle Restoration Project (“Amazing Facts About Leatherbacks” pdf download); Wikipedia.
For a true-to-life sea turtle and family saga, visit Elizabeth’s Landing: a novel by Katy Pye
Ages 10 to adult. Widely available in paperback and e-books.
I donate part of book sale profits to sea turtle conservation programs.