We don’t know too much about the giant leatherback turtles, the world’s second biggest reptile behind the crocodile, that summer offshore of the Ocean State and all over the Eastern Seaboard.
We know they come to feast on jellyfish. We know the females lay eggs in surf-side nests in South America, the Caribbean and as far north as Florida and that the males never again return to shore. But we don’t even know how long they live. After they hatch they swim sometimes thousands of miles out into the deep sea and even researches don’t see much of them again.
Until, that is, they are in trouble.
Such was the case on Thursday when a team from Mystic Aquarium and the U.S. Coast Guard rescued a 600-pound leatherback turtle that had become entangled in commercial fishing equipment four miles off the coast of Charlestown, RI.
Leatherbacks, so named because their so-called shells aren’t hard like other turtles, are one of the charter members of the Endangered Species list. With no natural predators other than human egg poachers, abandoned fishing equipment is the world’s biggest turtle’s biggest threat.
The turtle rescued last week got caught in some rope that was attached to a buoy 4.5 miles south from little-known Quonochontaug Beach and 5.5 miles from well-known Miscquamicut Beach (about 8.5 miles northwest of Block Island), where the ocean is about 100 feet deep.
Being too far off the coast for the Charlestown harbormaster to respond, a seven-person Coast Guard team assisted a three-member rescue squad from the Aquarium. It took them about 45 minutes to free the leatherback, said Janelle Schuh, a stranding coordinator for Mystic Aquarium.
“They usually don’t cooperate very well. There’s lot’s of flailing of their flippers,” she added, noting that their flippers are three-feel long. “Basically, they are just trying to get out of the way.”
Mystic Aquarium took video of the rescue, and released about a minute of footage to the public.
“Leatherback turtles occur relatively commonly in the Rhode Island study area,” according to a 2010 study of marine mammals and reptiles by URI marine biology professor Robert Kenney. Almost all are spotted in summer or fall, and most are seen from pleasure or whale watching boats in the same general vicinity that this where this Leatherback was found.
Interestingly enough, his research also indicates many of the regional Leatherbacks strandings occur in Rhode Island waters (p. 337).
Leatherback strandings are relatively common in Rhode Island, however we did not have access to most of those records … of the 146 sea turtle strandings responded to by Mystic Aquarium from 1987 to 2001, 124 (84.9%) were in Rhode Island, and 120 of the 146 were leatherbacks.