By: John H. Hough
A second leatherback turtle was found dead in Nantucket Sound this week. A 567-pound sea turtle was discovered by a boater off Edgartown floating entangled in a net with a buoy wrapped around its neck.
The creature was found at 7:20 AM on Sunday and towed to the mouth of Falmouth Inner Harbor where it could be picked up by the New England Aquarium and taken to its new Quincy laboratory for a necropsy.
Officials moored the turtle, which was floating, near the entrance of the harbor out of the way of boaters, about 20 feet from the signal light at the harbor’s entrance.
Evan A. Hutker and Anna L. Mihai, who were having dinner near the mouth of Falmouth Inner Harbor at the time of the turtle’s arrival, could not make out what it was with any certainty, but soon noticed that what was being towed was a large, dead animal. “At first I thought it was a big pile of nets” said Mr. Hutker. “When we looked closer it looked like a turtle.”
The turtle came to Falmouth Harbor less than a week after a 440-pound leatherback washed ashore on the beach in front of the Tides Motel. That sea turtle was found upside down with four propeller strikes and hull paint on its back, suggesting it succumbed to one of the Cape’s most common causes of leatherback fatality: being hit by recreational boaters.
After spending the night moored outside of Falmouth Inner Harbor, the turtle found entangled off Edgartown was towed by the Falmouth Harbor Master’s office into the harbor where it could be lifted out of the water and into the bed of the New England Aquarium’s pickup truck.
Assistant Harbor Master Daniel Gould, escorted by the Massachusetts environmental police, motored up the harbor with the carcass in tow. Mr. Gould backed the turtle dockside near a slip at the far end of the parking lot and the town boat ramp while Deputy Harbor Master William Palm maneuvered a forklift into place. The carcass was attached to the forklift and hauled slowly out of the water and onto the pavement while lines were untied on the carcass and the lift’s forks readjusted. Mr. Palm put the forks to the pavement to get under the turtle, and with patient precision, lifted it into the pickup truck.
The law enforcement branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be investigating the entangled line that was still attached to a trap when the turtle was taken into the harbor.
The leatherback hauled out yesterday that was found entangled in gear, New England Aquarium spokesman Anthony LaCasse pointed out, is interesting because in the span of less than a week the two most common causes of death for leatherback sea turtles may have turned up in Falmouth, though he was quick to point out that at this point both turtles may have suffered their respective fates postmortem, and as of yet there is no definitive cause of death.
Fascinated onlookers came down to see the carcass that had formerly been a living juvenile leatherback weighing more than 600 pounds before decomposition took its toll.
The leatherback, which is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered, exhibits some unusual qualities for turtles. It holds the title of world’s largest reptile, weighing in around 800 to 900 pounds; the largest on record was over 2,000 pounds. Strikingly different from most sea turtles, their carapace, or shell, is not made of bone. Instead about an inch and a half of tough leathery skin covers their ridged back, hence their name, leatherback.
An unusual characteristic among reptiles is the fact that the leatherback has the ability to regulate its internal temperature.
Mr. LaCasse warned that boaters who find leatherback sea turtles entangled should not attempt to free them. Their size and strength can be a serious danger for people who, despite good intentions, could end up themselves entangled with a leviathan many times their own size. Boaters are advised to report the incident to the Coast Guard and stay on the scene so that trained officials can find the turtle and free it.
The Center for Coastal Studies freed two leatherbacks in the last week, including a 700-pound turtle disentangled off Sesuit harbor in Dennis.
Robert Prescott, director of the Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, noted that a number of dead turtles have been spotted in Vineyard Sound as well as the reports of several dead loggerheads washing ashore.
Several officials noted the increase in the jellyfish population to be an indication of a possible increase in the local leatherback sea turtle population as they follow their food into the area.