Nicola Nash, who as you know if you have been to our crew section, is one of our main Eco Tour guides. She is also a board member for the Environmental Awareness Group. The EAG does a good job of creating awareness about our sea turtles. The article below appeared in the Daily Observer yesterday and we are proud to share it here too. It ties in well to my blog post from yesterday. (click here)
We have a variety of marine animals that live or frequent Antigua’s waters every year, but one of the most fascinating and incredible has to be the Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).
Leatherbacks are the largest of all sea turtles, measuring six to seven feet long and weighing anywhere from 1,500-2,000 pounds. They are called Leatherback because of their tough leathery “shell” which is usually dark brown to black and has seven pronounced vertical ridges along it. They live most of their lives in the open ocean, only coming into more shallow waters when it’s time to nest on the beaches.
Leatherbacks are known to travel great distances, and can be found in every ocean and travel farther north (and south) than any other reptile. They can easily withstand very cold temperatures, and will migrate to the warmer waters around the equator to mate and lay their eggs on sandy beaches like the ones for which Antigua is famous.
These turtles eat crabs, fishes, and tunicates, but the main part of their diet is jellyfish. A Leatherback turtle can eat up to 440 pounds of jellyfish per day, and will often dive more than 1,000 meters to find these jellies or to avoid predators.
Leatherbacks play a key role in keeping the ocean’s jellyfish population in check. Most types of jellyfish reproduce very quickly, and spread across vast distances because of their drifting ability. If Leatherbacks did not consume them, its estimated that jellyfish populations would increase so dramatically they would be more common than most commercially important fish and essentially “clog up“ our vast oceans.
Leatherbacks have sharp notches in their upper jaw that allow them to easily slice through the soft animals, and the powerful sting that you find with most Jellyfish seems to have no effect on these turtles.
Unfortunately, Leatherback Turtles are critically endangered since their population has dropped 80 per cent since 1980. Most of the dangers come from humans, either from poaching of the adults for meat or oil, taking of the eggs for food, vessel strikes from large boats, entanglement in nets or fishing lines, or the turtle’s consumption of trash thrown into the seas.
It’s estimated that only 26,000-43,000 females nest every year around the world, with the most popular nesting sites being in Gabon (West Africa), Colombia, Indonesia, and the Caribbean. Antigua sees only a small number of Leatherbacks nesting from February through April, and this is all the more reason to protect these rare animals.
While spotting a Leatherback Turtle is an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience, you have to remember that they are still wild animals that should be respected and left alone. There was a recent incident at one of Antigua’s hotels where a female Leatherback came up to nest to the surprise and enjoyment of the hotel staff and guests. While most of those present simply enjoyed watching the nesting mother, a few people got too close, were shining bright lights in its eyes, and one person even jumped onto the turtle’s back for photos.
In light of reports like this, here are some very important “Do’s and Don’ts” when dealing with Leatherbacks and other sea turtles:
Do not touch/disturb nesting females. Approaching too close can stress or scare the mother. Never attempt to flip her or stand on top of the shell, and always stay at least five meters/15 feet away.
Do not shine bright lights at the turtles. Flashlights, car lights, and flash cameras can disturb the nesting mothers, and while hatchlings are attracted by moonlight/white light when they come out of the nest, camera flashes can blind them or hurt their eyes severely. Red light is the best to use since they cannot see it as well.
Do not touch, dig up, trample, or disturb nesting sites or handle hatchlings. Also, never remove nesting females or hatchlings from the beach. If you find a nest or encounter mother turtles, immediately contact the EAG and/or Turtle Hotline.
Do not litter. Trash left on the beaches or thrown into the sea — especially plastic bags — can be eaten by sea turtles or ensnare them. If you find trash, please pick it up.
Do report any sightings or harmful activity/disturbance of the sea turtles immediately. If you see anyone digging up nests, catching the turtles, handling the hatchlings, or bothering the nesting mothers, contact the EAG/Turtle Hotline ASAP.
For more information on Leatherback Turtles or to report any activity, please contact the EAG (462-6236) or the Antiguan Sea Turtle Hotline (720-6955).