Monday, September 24, 2012

Rescued Leatherback Sea Turtle Released off of Cape Cod

The treatment and release of this giant leatherback sea turtle is among the first worldwide. Learn about the start of this rescue and rehabilitation operation here.

A 7-foot, 655-pound leatherback sea turtle that had stranded near the tip of Cape Cod on Thursday and was then transported to a New England Aquarium facility for treatment has been released in the waters south of Cape Cod in improved but very guarded condition. The black, soft-shelled giant was outfitted with a satellite tag to monitor its movement and hopeful survival.

Get a feel for the size of the animal and the release day with this video.

(McConnell Productions)

The turtle came in near death but was released late Saturday morning from the back of a fishing boat, a couple of miles off of Harwichport. The massive male was in much more stable condition due to treatment with a suite of medications that helped stabilize several of his blood values including glucose and oxygen levels which were very low. This treatment was made possible by recent field research conducted on briefly captured, live leatherbacks that helped biologists and veterinarians learn what normal blood values are in this ancient, ocean-going marine reptile.

Unlike other sea turtle species, leatherbacks have never been displayed in aquariums given their massive size, their constant swimming into tank walls and their exclusive diet of sea jellies (jellyfish). These endangered giants rarely strand alive and have usually survived for just a couple of days in an aquarium setting. Although this leatherback was not in ideal condition, Aquarium officials decided that the animal’s best chance of survival was back in the sea with its blood values stabilized and energy restored.

Head veterinarian Dr. Charles Innis and rescue director Connie Merigo, who together have overseen the rehabilitation of nearly a thousand sea turtles of smaller species, had worked with University of New Hampshire sea turtle researcher Kara Dodge  over the past several summers capturing 400 to 1000 pound plus leatherbacks swimming off the Cape and Islands. The brief captures on to the back of a fishing boat allowed the scientists to do physical exams and collect tissue samples on healthy animals that are not available anywhere else. Little did they realize that they would use that information so soon.

Dr. Charles Innis (left) was one of many people who hefted the 655-pound turtle

This unusual rescue story began Wednesday evening when the turtle was first spotted stranded in Pamet Harbor in Truro near the tip of Cape Cod. Due to darkness and an incoming tide, rescue efforts were postponed.

Early Thursday morning, the staff of the Mass Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay re-located the turtle a few hundred yards from the nearest road access. With the assistance of a dolphin stranding transport cart from the Cape Cod-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Mass Audubon and IFAW staff with local volunteers moved the one third ton reptile to a an IFAW vehicle. Thursday morning, Aquarium biologists met the rescuers on the Cape and took over care of the skinny, male turtle as they transported to the Aquarium’s new Marine Animal Care Center in the former Quincy Shipyard.

The turtle stranded in Truro, Mass.

There, he was evaluated by the Aquarium’s veterinarians. The lethargic, seven foot long turtle at 655 pounds was actually underweight although not emaciated. Leatherback sea turtles are among the world’s largest reptiles, and adults commonly weigh in excess of 1000 pounds. Rescue staff drew blood to evaluate the animal’s health and started administering drugs to treat it for dehydration, trauma and shock.

Leatherbacks are open ocean sea turtles that migrate thousands of miles and consequently have enormous front flippers to pull their giant bodies through the water. Aquarium medical staff immediately noticed the turtle’s unfortunately distinctive left front flipper that was about a foot and a half shorter than the three foot long right one. About 40% of that paddle was gone due to some kind of recent trauma. Most of the wound had healed over, but Dr. Innis felt that the injury had probably occurred this season.

Sea turtles often lose parts of flippers to sharks or other large predatory fish and can still survive. However, the line of the avulsed tissue on the flipper was very straight. That led some Aquarium staff  to wonder if the trauma might have occurred from a flipper entanglement in a vertical line in the water such as to a lobster pot or a boat mooring. Such entanglements are unfortunately quite common and along with recreational boat strikes are the two leading sources of death for this endangered species in New England waters. Officials are still counting and double checking reports but fear that more than twenty of the endangered leatherbacks have died in the region this summer.

Leatherbacks migrate up the East Coast each June to feed on abundant sea jellies (jellyfish) in Massachusetts waters, particularly around the Cape and the Islands. They will migrate south for the winter in September and October.

The turtle was kept from bumping the sides of the tank with a special harness maned by two people at all times.

After its intake exam, Aquarium staff wrapped a large, Velcro harness around the turtle before placing it in a large tank. The harness was attached to a rope which was always handled by one or two people with the mandate of keeping the turtle from swimming into one of the tank walls. Being entirely ocean going, leatherbacks never encounter barriers in the sea that they cannot swim around. The harness was designed by New England Aquarium staff as a technique to avoid further injury to the turtle.

Aquarium biologists, veterinarians and volunteers worked overnight Thursday and Friday constantly monitoring the giant turtle. The turtle steadily regained its strength and increased its activity level. The decision was made to release him.

In the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, a couple of dozen people moved about the cavernous, high tech space of the Aquarium’s sea turtle rescue facility. A forklift fired up, and two staff in dry suits entered the tank with the turtle. They directed the turtle to swim into a heavy tarp hanging from the forks. After some adjusting, the 655 pounder was lifted out of the pool and slowly backed out of the building where it was loaded into a marine animal transport trailer provided by IFAW.

A small caravan of vehicles followed the trailer to Harwichport. There, the loading process was reversed. While loading, the turtle was outfitted with satellite tracking tag that was attached to its shell. The expensive electronic device was provided by the Riverhead Foundation of Long Island which drove it up on short notice. The turtle was settled on to the back deck of the lobster boat, Sea Holly, which is owned and captained by Mark Leach. As the Sea Holly left port, about twenty on-lookers spontaneously cheered.

Ten staff took their positions reviewing the detailed plans for several different scenarios. The monstrous, seven foot turtle quietly clambered about the stern deck. That activity level was a good sign. Once sufficiently off-shore, the stern rail was opened, and the big male pulled forward with his huge front flippers and dropped a foot into the water. He dove deep right away and did not re-surface within sight of the boat. That is normal behavior for healthy leatherbacks that had been handled during the research field work. A couple of early hits came in off of his satellite tag indicating that he was moving.

The prognosis remains unclear, but this individual sea turtle has been afforded another chance at survival in an endangered species that is staring down extinction.

A leatherback stranded just last year. While it did not survive, learn about the rescue team's valiant effort to save the turtle. Learn how rescue teams around New England practice disentangling leatherback sea turtles from fishing line, an all-too-common occurrence. Finally, meet a nesting leatherback our rescue team encountered in the wild during a rescue expedition to Florida. 


  1. Wow, an amazing job performed by everyone. I expect there are some very tired people after all the hard work looking after her.

    1. You're spot on, TortoiseBlog. Thanks for your kind words!

  2. Good Job ! Great Article. It would be nice if you would post his travels from the satellite tag. Nice to see an up date on him. thanks and Regards

    1. Hi Mona – The satellite tag was provided by Riverhead Foundation of Long Island, so they're the keeper of that data. But as soon as we have an update we'll definitely let everyone know. We're still very guarded about the turtle's condition and survival, but incredibly hopeful!!

  3. Please let us know what he is doing and where he goes, that would be so interesting. I you love it. Thanks for saving him.

  4. We live near the Cape and are quite interested in an update regarding the Leatherback Turtle.

    Thank you.

  5. What a great story -- thanks you NEAq and Mass Audubon.

  6. BRAVO to all of you people - what a MAGNIFICENT token of prehistoric times this beautiful big boy is!!! :-)

  7. I live in Trinidad the work here to protect them is tireless it's a hard job but well worth it so keep up the good work

    1. Back at 'cha! Thanks for all you do to protect this species, too.


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