Fisherman spots rare leatherback sea turtles off PEI coast

Sea turtle eating a jellyfish [Credit: Lorne Bonnell]

Eastern Canadian fishers are used to spotting sea wildlife like seals and even whales, but sea turtles are another story, which is why a fisherman was excited to spot a group of over a dozen  sea turtles off the coast of PEI this August.

Lorne Bonnell initially mistook the turtles for seals, but when he realized the animals were actually leatherback  turtles, he got out his camera. Leatherback turtles are rare and endangered, and this was the first time Bonnell had ever seen them in his fishing career.

“It was overwhelming — they were amazing,” he told the CBC.

Leatherback Sea turtle's shell emerging from water
[Credit: Lorne Bonnell]

Leatherbacks are the largest turtles in existence and are distinguishable by the “leathery” carapaces they have on their backs have instead of the bony shells most turtles have. Adult leatherbacks can be around two metres long and weigh anywhere from 250 to 700 kg (that’s over a thousand pounds). “They were massive! They were way bigger than I ever expected,” Bonell said.

Leatherback sea turtle on beach
The largest existing turtles, adult leatherbacks can weigh up to 1000 pounds and have flippers nearly nine feet long. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons/AlbertHerring]

The turtles were in the area eating the jellyfish that are plentiful in the region. They tend to bulk up in the late summer, then use that energy to return to the warmer southern hemisphere for winter.

The Canadian Sea Turtle Network was also excited about the sighting. “[Bonell’s images are] amazing photographs — they’re some of the most wonderful photographs of turtles feeding on jellyfish that we’ve seen,” Kathleen Martin, the Sea Turtle Network’s executive director, told the CBC.

These ancient animals (they’ve been around since the late Cretaceous period) are now under threat, partially because they can become entangled in fishing gear, and also because they sometimes consume plastic bags, which look like jellyfish.

Martin said that Canada’s Atlantic waters are “critical to the survival” of these turtles, since it’s where they get much of their food, and said that while people rarely see them, they are in the region each year.

“It’s not commonplace to see them, but it’s not unusual that they’re there.”


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