Back in November, we caught up with Professor Brendan Godley, one of the world’s leading sea turtle experts, to talk about his focal species group, and in particular to learn about the fascinating and charismatic green turtle. Since then, Brendan has been involved in some great work with the giants of the marine turtle world, the leatherbacks, so we thought we’d have another chat with him to find out more!
Hi Brendan, welcome back to the ARKive blog! So, tell us a little bit about leatherbacks…what makes them special?
Leatherbacks are a one-off. They are the biggest of the turtles, and they don’t have a hard outer shell, instead having a leathery skin coating. Not cold blooded in the strictest sense, they can swim across ocean basins into cool waters as far north as Iceland and Canada. Amazingly, they manage all of this on a diet of jellyfish. They are even found in UK waters every year.
What are the main threats to leatherbacks, and where are current leatherback conservation efforts being focused?
Although leatherbacks have traditionally been harvested for meat and eggs, this has largely desisted around the world. The major concern nowadays is the incidental capture of leatherbacks in longlines and gillnets. Although research into incidental capture originally focused on industrial fisheries, work around the world by excellent NGOs such as Prodelphinus is showing that artisanal or small-scale fisheries are currently a major issue. While these vessels and their gear are not individually large, there are so many of them that they add up to a great deal of fishing effort . These fisheries often focus on fishing along the coastal shelf or in the nearby deeper waters which are productive and are being shown to be very much frequented by leatherbacks. In many instances, extreme poverty further compounds the situation, often leading to a poor result for the turtles.
I hear that you are currently involved in an exciting bit of leatherback research involving tagging and tracking…can you tell us a bit more about that?
For the last few years, supported by the Darwin Initiative, we have been involved with a range of partners in Gabon, the country that hosts the world’s largest nesting population of leatherbacks. Although we have tracked these animals in the past, showing them to go as far as South Africa and Uruguay, we are currently tracking a group to assess their habitat use at the nesting site in Gabon, gain insights into just how many clutches they lay, and, of course, to find out where they go when they are finished. These animals can be followed live on the excellent website run by SEATURTLE.org. There you can subscribe to daily updates and have maps sent to your e-mail.
You told us a rather amusing story last time about a student almost getting buried by a green turtle during fieldwork! Any funny stories to report from your time working with leatherbacks?!
No real funny ones, but as I outlined in the green turtle blog, my formative experiences with sea turtles were in Trinidad in 1989 as part of a student expedition. There were great experiences to be had but at that time there was a great deal of illegal killing of leatherbacks for meat. This really got me interested in conservation and I think it was a pivotal point in my life. I returned to the island in 1991, and in a small way helped the Government of Trinidad and Tobago extend their surveys, which resulted in the growth of a great force for good, the NGO Nature Seekers.
Have you ever had to use your vet skills on a sea turtle in distress?
In my time working in the Mediterranean I have unfortunately had to put some severely injured animals to sleep that had been wounded after interactions with fisheries. More often, however, my vet pathology skills have been involved, carrying out post-mortems on dead animals including a leatherback which stranded in UK waters. The post-mortem took me right inside one of nature’s giants. The amount and redness of the blood was truly memorable, as was the amount of blubber – just like a marine mammal.
Why is it important to conserve sea turtles?
Although many populations are starting to rebound, others are still in decline. This is particularly true for leatherbacks in the Indo-Pacific. To me, a good enough reason to act is that it would simply be a great shame if these magnificent animals were lost from any major part of their range. In addition, sea turtles can act as useful flagship species for coastal development, and at near natural high population levels they undoubtedly play important ecological roles as predators, prey, fertilisers of dune systems and, in some cases, as habitat for a diversity of species that live on the surface of their bodies. Although not a panacea for sea turtle conservation, wildlife tourism revenue, such as that generated by the successful Nature Seekers project, is clearly a dividend in some cases.
What is your favourite leatherback photo on ARKive?
Well, I think I am going to cheat again and choose multiple photos. The one of the turtle wrapped in fishing nets is particularly evocative and sums up what I believe to be the major threat to this and many other marine vertebrate species.
For personality, including highlighting the jellyfish-handling beak, I like this one:
Finally, for its sheer quirkiness, I would highlight the one where the catfish is predating the hatchling.
If you enjoyed this blog and love sea turtles, then why not join us on Wednesday 20th February for a Twitter chat with Brendan! Pop online at 15:00 UK time when Brendan will be taking over the ARKive Twitter account to answer all your sea turtle-related questions! It’ll be turtley awesome!