Rare leatherbacks spotted by network organized by SeaTurtles.org

Confirmed sightings of endangered leatherback sea turtles by scientists and naturalists offshore of Dana Point, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Half Moon Bay are being reported to the all-volunteer Leatherback Watch Program run by the non-profit SeaTurtles.org over the last ten days. Leatherbacks were first sighted July 14th offshore of Monterey and have been sighted regularly throughout the last week with the most recent sighting Sunday offshore of Moss Landing in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. In total, nine individual leatherbacks sightings have been reported offshore of Northern California in under two weeks.

“Seeing a critically endangered leatherback is a rare and unforgettable experience and compiling these sightings is really boosting our local conservation and advocacy outreach,” said Chris Pincetich, Ph.D. a marine biologist and educator at SeaTurtles.org. “Knowing exactly when they arrive, where they are most abundant, and how many are out there helps us shape new protective policies for fisheries that are their leading threat.”

Dr. Pincetich said the leatherbacks seen recently appeared to be moving north as they followed a huge bloom of jellyfish. Based on photos acquired, one sea turtle was spotted twice, four days apart by the same vessel. Leatherbacks are feasting on brown sea nettle jellies, the most nutritious species offshore from California, Pincetich said.

Passengers and crew aboard Blue Ocean Whale Watch vessels out of Moss Landing reported at least two leatherbacks. A former deckhand on the whale watching boat Huli Cat, out of Pillar Pont Harbor in San Mateo County, also spotted one from shore, said Tom Mattusch, the boat’s skipper. In Southern California, naturalist Corey Hall spotted a leatherback twice last week on a Dana Wharf Whale Watching vessel.

“Last year we had 7 sightings of leatherback turtles from our boat and we’re excited to see if we can spot more this season.” said Kate Cummings from Blue Ocean Whale Watch. “So far, it’s looking good because our first sighting didn’t come until August of last year. When we start to see sea nettle jellies in the water, we perk up and scan all around the boat, hoping to see a feasting turtle return to the surface to breathe.”

With the help of supporters like Kate, the Leatherback Watch Program has recorded sightings from Point Sur California up to British Columbia, Canada. The majority of sightings were off the California coast in an area that is now protected critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for these marine reptiles enacted February 27, 2012.

The Leatherback Watch Program began in 2010 to work collaboratively with charter vessels, marine researchers and local yacht clubs to compile, record and communicate sightings of Pacific leatherbacks off the West Coast of the United States using photos and GPS coordinates to validate the data for use in ongoing marine ecology studies. The project reaches hundreds of thousands of people when media outlets share news stories, articles, and videos.

To join an offshore expedition in search of leatherback sea turtles with a SeaTurtles.org marine naturalists, click here for a list of trips.

SeaTurtles.org is advocating to name the leatherback the official marine reptile of the state of California with a bill, AB 1776, moving through Sacramento this year. AB 1776 will help Californians learn about and appreciate the leatherback and recognize the ecological importance of this ancient species by adding it to state law as an official symbol of California’s conservation ethic and biodiversity. Click here to support the Leatherback Bill, AB 1776.

Leatherbacks grow up to eight feet long, can weight close to a ton, have survived the extinction of dinosaurs over 65 million years ago virtually unchanged, but are now under a serious threat of extinction in the Pacific. Populations of the Pacific leatherback have declined by approximately 90 percent in the last 25 years under the constant assault of industrial fishing, particularly the deadly interactions with longline and gillnet fishing gear. Illegal poaching, vessel strikes, entanglement in marine debris, and plastic pollution ingestion all harm and kill these imperiled animals. For over twenty years, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project www.seaturtles.org has worked from California and the Gulf of Mexico with communities across the globe to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles from slipping closer to extinction.