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Aug 18, 2009 5:27 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Giant leatherback turtle washes up in Springs

Aug 18, 2009 5:27 PM

A female leatherback sea turtle, weighing approximately 600 pounds, washed up dead in Springs on Monday morning in front of a house on Kings Point Road overlooking Gardiner’s Bay. Leatherback turtles are a federally listed endangered species.

The East Hampton Town Highway Department used a payloader to move the creature to the end of Flaggy Hole Road, the closest town property, where there was room for the machinery to access the beach.

“We’ve never had a leatherback like this,” said an East Hampton Town Marine Patrol officer on the scene. He guessed that it had probably died recently. “Usually the first thing that goes is the eyes, and the eyes are still intact,” he said.

As a small, wide-eyed crowd of people in bathing suits gathered, the driver of the payloader dug a hole in the sand, about 6 feet deep, where the turtle would be buried after a necropsy was conducted by Kimberly Durham, the rescue program director for the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, which also operates a sea turtle rescue program for all of New York State.

Her necropsy revealed that the turtle had died likely within a day of washing onto shore. It had been a young, healthy female about 10 to 15 years old that had most likely not yet begun to lay eggs, she said.

Lying like a beached dinosaur in the blazing sun, the turtle had a long cut on its back that oozed blood, evidence that it had been hit by a boat and suffered blunt force trauma, Ms. Durham said. Her examination revealed compression fractures on the shell, she added, and significant evidence of hemorrhaging. The turtle also had a mouth, throat and belly full of jellyfish, meaning that it’s likely it was actively eating when it was hit hard.

Leatherback turtles pass by Long Island and feed on jellyfish annually around this time of year, Ms. Durham said. Just last week, the Riverhead Foundation worked with the East Hampton Town Marine Patrol to disentangle an even larger male leatherback sea turtle that had gotten caught in a conch pot trawl in Gardiner’s Bay. The turtle swam away, apparently in good shape.

The turtles will come as far into Gardiner’s Bay as the food is, Ms. Durham said. “They’re driven by a desire to feed. That’s why they’re here,” she said. “We’re a little concerned if you have that concentration of food and leatherbacks and you have a high traffic area.” Based on the turtle’s size, Ms. Durham said that it was likely a large vessel hit the animal and might not have even known it. To prevent another fatality, she said she wants to get the word out that there may be big turtles close to shore for the next month.

The turtle’s dark shell, leathery to the touch, and at least 5 feet long, was in the shape of a tear drop, marked by nine vertical ridges that came together over the tail in a sharp, hydrodynamic point. Leatherback turtles grow larger and swim farther than any other sea turtle in the ocean. They’ll travel as far north as Newfoundland and deep into the southern hemisphere. In New York, the largest sea turtle the Riverhead Foundation has recorded was an 800-pound male with a shell about 7 feet long. In the world, the largest leatherback ever seen was estimated to weigh 1,200 pounds and was seen off the coast of Wales.

Ms. Durham said she knew immediately that the turtle was a female because males have longer tales. Its legs and tail were grey-black, wrinkled like an elephant’s skin. A few barnacles grew on the turtle’s green-black back and underside, which was a mottled pattern of black and white spots. It had a light purple mark on the top of its flat head that extended to a blunt point marked by the two nostrils of its nose.

While Ms. Durham could approximate the turtle’s age from her ovaries and measurements, to accurately age the turtle, she collected an eye, which she would send to the National Marine Fisheries Services for analysis. The turtle’s eyes contain bone that scientists can use to determine age, like counting the rings in a tree. By studying turtle eyes, the NMFS lab wants to determine how old leatherbacks can get, which is still not known, as leatherbacks do not thrive in captivity, but injure themselves rubbing against the tank glass.

While Ms. Durham said that this is the time of year that her team sees leatherbacks, this turtle at Flaggy Hole Road was unique because she was in fairly good condition when found and examined. Usually, beached turtles are too decomposed to determine the cause of death.

“It was unfortunate, but good in a sense because she beached right after death, we could examine her quickly, so clues of what led to her death were found,” Ms. Durham said.

“She was beautiful. She was exactly what you’d like to see in leatherbacks,” Ms. Durham said.

If you see a sea turtle caught in a net, struggling in the water or washed up on shore, immediately call the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue hotline: 631-369-9829.

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