Rare turtles swimming our way again


Ah, the leatherback. No, not the old dude three apartments down from you who hasn’t worn a shirt outside in the sun for decades.

These leatherbacks are turtles, and like your senior neighbor, they’ve been around a while.

With fossilized remains dating back more than 65 million years, Leatherback turtles have been cruising earth’s oceans long before humans started thinking they could run things around here.

But the leatherback’s numbers — particularly in their stronghold, the Pacific Ocean — have been squeezed dramatically in recent decades. One study showed a 70 percent reduction in adult female population in less than one breeding generation.

That’s one reason local biologists are so hoppin’ excited over a healthy jump in leatherback sightings off the Northern California coast.

BCN reports spotters with the volunteer Leatherback Watch Program have so far recorded 20 sightings just a few weeks into this summer. Last year, 23 turtles were spotted during the entire summer season.

Leatherbacks perform a 13,000-mile migration cycle every two years that even travel writers must envy.

Turtles start with mating and nesting around Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Then, they move to some rest in Hawaii, and back to Northern California to bulk up on some good eating.

Sounds like my dream vacation.

Biologist Chris Pincetich with the Turtle Island Restoration Network told the Chron’s David Perlman in July that the leatherbacks likely followed a massive bloom of brown sea nettle jellyfish up the California coast.

The leatherback’s earlier-than-usual dinner reservations in northern California, though, could spell trouble.

Pincetich told BCN that commercial fishing operations restrict the use of their mile-long gill nets used to catch swordfish starting later in August to protect the turtles.

But if the turtles are showing up early, more could end up stranded in fishing nets.

Leatherbacks get their name from being the only kind of turtle not to have a hard outer top shell, or carapace. Instead, the carapace of a leatherback is flexible and rubbery.

Mature leatherback males can reach up to one ton in weight.

Jesse Garnier
Jesse Garnier is the editor and founder of SFBay. A Mission District native, he also teaches journalism as associate professor at San Francisco State University.

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