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Sep 9, 2008 3:12 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Massive turtle washes up in Wainscott

Sep 9, 2008 3:12 PM

Marine researchers at the Riverhead Foundation received reports on Saturday that a large, dead leatherback sea turtle had washed up on the beach just east of Georgica Pond and below West End Road in Wainscott.

“It’s not a surprise we would see them here,” Riverhead Foundation Director and Senior Biologist Rob DiGiovanni said, explaining that the turtle in Wainscott is one of 10 leatherbacks his team has picked up since August 16. The species is not uncommon in area waters, especially during the months of August, September and October, Mr. DiGiovanni said, noting that the animals primarily feed on jellyfish, which are prevalent this time of year. He said the number of dead leatherbacks is “a little higher than normal” this year, though not alarmingly so.

After receiving reports of the animal on Saturday, despite torrential rainfall and roiling seas due to Tropical Storm Hannah, Riverhead Foundation researchers were able to get on the beach and reach the carcass to attach a flipper tag. Mr. DiGiovanni said it was important to tag the leatherback because they feared it might get sucked back into the ocean and wash up elsewhere, confusing things.

The turtle was a 154-centimeter female, weighing approximately 600 to 800 pounds and “severely decomposed,” Mr. DiGiovanni said. He noted that the state of decomposition was not strange, considering it had been “out there a while.” The cause of death is undetermined. There were no visible signs of trauma.

At around 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, the turtle appeared dug into the shore and seagulls picked at it while an occasional passersby stopped to marvel at the large animal.

Mr. DiGiovanni said leatherback turtles are pelagic animals, meaning they usually stay off shore, but the jellyfish upon which they prey can lure them closer to land. He said they usually wash up dead and if a person finds one, they should stay away from it and call the Riverhead Foundation so researchers can gather as much information as possible.

If people sight one alive while out fishing or boating, Mr. DiGiovanni said they should report that as well because where leatherbacks are swimming and feeding is important data. He said too often fishermen tell him of a sighting long after it happens or he hears of it secondhand.

Leatherback turtles are the largest turtles in the world and can grow as large as six feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds, according to Mr. DiGiovanni, though he noted the average leatherback in this region is about 800-1,000 pounds. He said they have a wide distribution and have been seen as far north as Nova Scotia.

The turtle remained on the beach as of Tuesday afternoon, but Mr. DiGiovanni said his team will usually remove dead animals or bury them deep beneath the sand. Leatherbacks get their name from the shell’s leathery quality. The marine biologist said that, unlike other species of sea turtle, the shell will decompose. The Riverhead Foundation, located at Atlantis Marine World aquarium in Riverhead, will often save the shells from other turtles and use them for educational purposes.

The Riverhead Foundation is the only organization authorized to recover and research seals, sea turtles, whales and dolphin in New York State and anyone who finds one, dead or alive, should report it by calling (631) 369-9829 or visiting

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