Well, we had an awesome leatherback nesting season! We have 154 leatherbacks nests on the beaches we patrol, which is exciting for us as we only had 97 last year. Of our 154 nests, our nighttime tagging team had 108 encounters! We saw 62 individual leatherback turtles this year, including 24 new mamas and some that were originally tagged in the first few years of this tagging project. Both Spica and Electra were tagged in 2002 which was the second year of the nighttime tagging program. Seeing the original mamas is always so exciting!
The smallest leatherback that we saw this season was Sterling, originally tagged in 2011, who measured 135 cm in curved carapace length (just over 4 feet, 5 inches). Our largest was Electra, who measured 169 cm in curved carapace length (about 5 feet, 6 and a half inches). Remember that these measurements are just of the shell length so these numbers don’t reflect the total length of the turtle.
Dr. Justin Perrault measuring Bunny’s curved carapace length. Photo credit: Tina Bruaset.
Of the 62 mamas we saw this year, many of them were only encountered once or twice. We did see quite a few mamas (May, Bimbi, Kaitlyn, Eunice, Pyxis, Christine, and Prissy) three times. We saw Aussie and Wildfire four times! Compared to loggerhead and green turtles, leatherbacks have relatively low fidelity to specific nesting beaches. We know that some of the turtles we saw this year were also encountered on other beaches in Palm Beach and Martin counties this year.
This season we had five concurrent leatherback research projects. The incredible abundance of loggerhead, green, and leatherback turtles on our beaches makes this location ideal for nesting turtle research. One of our collaborating researchers came all the way from Melbourne, Australia! Lucky for us, Dr. Franciscus Sheelings, a wildlife veterinarian and now Ph.D. candidate at Monash University, is also an amazing photographer (see below)!
Above: Benatar while she laid her clutch of eggs just south of the Jupiter inlet. Note that these images were not taken with flash. Photo credits: Franciscus Sheelings, www.wildvetphotography.com.
Although our leatherback patrol team ended regular patrols on June 15 (approximately when they stop nesting regularly), we have seen two more mamas since then! Our nighttime turtle walk team actually spotted Kelly Clarkson on June 23 and our nighttime research team encountered Electra on July 10! While Electra was nesting a different leatherback nest emerged nearby. Our nighttime techs were able to get a real time comparison of how much these animals need to grow before we might see them again on our beaches!
Above: Electra while she laid her clutch of eggs. A hatchling from a nearby emergence was placed next to her for a size comparison (bottom photo). Photo credits: Sarah Hirsch.
Although our leatherbacks are mostly done nesting, make sure to look out for some of our hatchling updates! Who doesn’t love a leatherback hatchling?
Disclaimer: All marine turtle images taken in Florida were obtained with the approval of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under conditions not harmful to this or other turtles. Images were acquired while conducting authorized research activities pursuant to FWC MTP-18-205.