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Leatherback Turtles: Giving Thanks Where It Is Due

By Nathan Robinson, PhD

Our planet is in the midst of its 6th mass extinction event. The first five events were caused by natural disasters, such as intense volcanic activity or asteroid collisions. This modern extinction event is unique because it is the only mass extinction event directly caused by human activities. Not only does this mean that we are responsible; it also means that this is the first mass extinction event that we could potentially remedy. Technological advances and scientific innovations will be key to achieving this, but potentially more important are cultural changes.

Many of us consciously consider the effect that our day-to-day actions might have on the Earth’s ecosystems. We might only buy sustainably farmed fish or remember to correctly dispose of or recycle plastic waste. These actions are important, but sadly our efforts are not yet enough to stop the growing wave of extinctions sweeping the globe. It is time to remind ourselves about the countless ways endangered species enrich our lives. The resulting sense of gratitude might provide the motivation we need to win this fight.

The leatherback turtle, a species that many people have never heard of, and even fewer have seen, illustrates the resounding impact that a single endangered species can have on people all around the world.

Leatherback turtles are the largest of the sea turtles and can grow to over 2 metres in length. Even though most people know little about them, leatherback turtles impact our lives every day. These marine behemoths have appetites to match their size and they can devour over 100 kilograms of prey each day. Their prey are jellyfish, the worst enemies of many fisheries. Jellyfish are carnivorous and they eat almost anything they can wrap their tentacles around, often including many young fish and their eggs. Leatherback turtles can suppress jellyfish populations by literally eating them all up. Ultimately, this can lead to more abundant fish populations. Next time you sit down to enjoy a fish dinner, remember that a leatherback turtle might have made that meal possible.

As leatherbacks tend to live far out in the open-ocean, they are rarely seen at sea. However, for a few months of each year, female leatherback turtles haul themselves out of the ocean to nest on sandy beaches in the tropics. This is one of the few opportunities that most people have to see a leatherback turtle.

A nesting leatherback takes hours to carefully prepare a nest for her eggs. Those who witness the exhausting feat are humbled by the turtle’s indefatigable persistence and dedication to giving her offspring the best chance of survival. Some onlookers feel overwhelmed by a sense of tranquillity after such an encounter with one of nature’s giants. In fact, research indicates that encounters with nature can help restore concentration, improve productivity, lower stress, and relieve depression, among many other benefits to our health and well-being.

These lingering memories and feelings of gratitude can be powerful motivators. I wonder how many artworks, songs, or books have grown out an inspiring encounter with a sea turtle, much like a whale inspired Moby Dick. Perhaps that one encounter with a sea turtle inspired someone to recycle more or pick up plastics in the gutter. Maybe the experience prompted another person to follow a new career path in conservation biology (as it did for me). I see how the effects that leatherback turtles have had on those that have been lucky enough to see one up close can reverberate through a whole society, and eventually the world.

There are many reasons for us to be thankful for leatherback turtles, so it is disheartening to watch them vanish from our oceans. The number of leatherback turtles in the East Pacific Ocean has dropped by over 98 % in the past 27 years, making them arguably the most endangered sea turtle population on Earth. The early years of this decline are attributed to unsustainable or illegal egg harvesting. Fortunately, direct consumption of eggs is no longer a problem where I work in Las Baulas National Park, but we must all now accept responsibility for leatherback mortality through indirect mechanisms. Leatherback turtles are accidentally caught and killed in nets or on hooks set to catch commercially valuable fish species intended for our plates. Or leatherback turtles choke on or ingest plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish, until our irresponsibly discarded plastics clog up their digestive tracts. Climate change, caused by human activities, is making leatherback nesting beaches hotter and drier, thereby lowering the number of leatherback hatchlings that emerge from nests.

Our actions as a global society are pushing leatherbacks into extinction, even as these animals continue to inspire and enrich our lives. For this, I have the deepest gratitude for leatherback turtles, and all of Earth’s biodiversity. By focusing on this gratitude and sharing it with others, I believe leatherback turtles can inspire us to alter our consumption patterns and cultural norms to live more ecologically friendly lives to the benefit of ourselves, the people around us, and all the other endangered species on our planet.

Credit: N.J. Robinson 2014
Credit: N.J. Robinson 2014

Nathan J. Robinson, Ph.D, is Field Director of The Leatherback Trust. His research focuses on investigating how large marine species, such as sea turtles, respond to oceanographic processes. He is also interested in applying novel technologies to uncover the secrets of marine megafauna and develop effective conservation management strategies. Nathan holds a Ph.D in Biology from Purdue University, USA, and a Masters in Marine Biology from Southampton University, UK.

The Leatherback Trust is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the leatherback sea turtle. Our mission is to promote the conservation of leatherbacks and other turtles at risk of extinction.

Eastern Pacific leatherback turtles are critically endangered. This population of sea turtles has declined by more than 98% since 1990. We are working to reverse this trend by tackling the 5 most deadly threats to leatherbacks and other sea turtles around the world. Our scientists conduct research at nesting beaches and at sea, collecting critical data to support conservation interventions. We partner with communities to protect nesting beaches and work with governments to inform sustainable development and fisheries management priorities.