Ran­dom find leads to huge loss

Leatherback sea tur­tle im­por­tant to re­searchers was dis­cov­ered on a Digby County shore­line

Tri-County Vanguard - - THEN AND NOW - DIGBYCOURIER.CA

When­ever Jonathan Ri­ley heads out on a hike, it’s usu­ally an ad­ven­ture.

And on this par­tic­u­lar day – a Sun­day in early Au­gust – he could have hiked just about any­where. This way. That way.

That way. This way.

“I could have cho­sen a mil­lion other things to do that day, but I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just do that walk,” he says.

“That walk” took the Digby res­i­dent (and yes, a former re­porter with this news­pa­per) to what he calls a “weird lit­tle spot” on the coast­line. A walk that would take him from Prim Point to the Ship­wreck mon­u­ment, and then even beyond that where he’d be chal­lenged by ter­rain. An even­tual place that he says you can’t get to un­less it’s low tide, with what he calls two “pinch points” that make the hike even harder.

“It’s the kind of place no one goes to be­cause you can only get through there at low tide and it’s an hour-and-a-half from any­where,” he says. “It’s very rare but I thought, I’m go­ing to make that walk.”

Kath­leen Martin is thank­ful that he did.

Well, thank­ful and sad.

Be­cause on his walk Ri­ley dis­cov­ered a dead leatherback sea tur­tle. And not just any tur­tle, but one of the most sig­nif­i­cant ones that the Cana­dian Sea Tur­tle Net­work has re­searched and tracked over the years.

Later that day Ri­ley called the net­work to re­port his find­ing. When Martin searched the tur­tle from the tag num­bers that Ri­ley had given her, her heart sank. The tur­tle was Red Rock­ette.

Red Rock­ette has of­fered re­searchers valu­able in­sight into leatherback sea tur­tles, even though science still has much to learn about this en­dan­gered species, Martin says.

“One of the things that is im­por­tant to keep re­mem­ber­ing is sea tur­tle science is re­ally new in this coun­try,” she says. “The bulk of it is about 20 years old and when you’re look­ing at a species, this is a di­nosaur, this species has been here for over 150 mil­lion years, we know so lit­tle.”

“We are ab­so­lutely stu­dents of these an­i­mals,” she says. “So all of them are im­por­tant. The in­for­ma­tion is im­por­tant. Call­ing is im­por­tant when we see them, tak­ing pic­tures if you see them, if you find a dead one it’s re­ally im­por­tant that we know.”

Red Rock­ette had been tagged off Nova Sco­tia in 2012. In March 2013, the tur­tle gained no­to­ri­ety and pop­u­lar­ity when it was tracked from Nova Sco­tia to Colom­bia, “win­ning” the Great Cana­dian Tur­tle Race as part of 10 leatherback sea tur­tles whose jour­neys in the ocean were be­ing tracked. This tur­tle even­tu­ally nested on a beach called Bobal­ito in Colom­bia.

Red Rock­ette was dis­cov­ered again by sci­en­tists in wa­ters off Cape Bre­ton in 2014. And then again back on Bobal­ito beach in 2016.

Martin says this is noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing.

“Pluck­ing an an­i­mal out of the vast At­lantic Ocean? Peo­ple that live on the ocean get it, it’s a very, very big body of wa­ter,” she says. “You’re pulling it out of the ocean not once, but twice . . . and it was found on the beach twice and it’s washed up in the re­motest of lo­ca­tions, not even where we usu­ally find leatherbacks, and we don’t usu­ally find them along the Fundy coast.”

It’s not known ex­actly how old the tur­tle was – Martin says it is dif­fi­cult to pin­point the age of a leatherback tur­tle. This adult fe­male’s shell was about a me­tre­and-a-half long and it’s be­lieved she was a cou­ple decades old. Per­haps.

Martin says los­ing this par­tic­u­lar tur­tle re­ally puts the work they do in per­spec­tive be­cause it isn’t an easy feat to gather in­for­ma­tion. Again, it’s why re­ported sight­ings are so im­por­tant to re­searchers.

She says all of the en­coun­ters with Red Rock­ette have left her won­der­ing: “What are we sup­posed to know that we don’t al­ready know? It’s one of those things when you keep say­ing, ‘Tell me more, na­ture. Tell me more.’”

When Ri­ley found Red Rock­ette,

the tur­tle was quite de­com­posed, and it smelled hor­ri­ble. Oddly enough, just a week ear­lier a friend, Ralph Cum­mings, had asked Ri­ley if he had ever seen a leatherback tur­tle. He had shown Ri­ley a video that some­one had taken of a leatherback in the wa­ter. Ri­ley had never seen one – but then did a week later. “That was the thing, for me, that was the cra­zi­est,” he says.

When he called the net­work and spoke to Martin, she asked him if he ac­tu­ally had the tur­tle’s tags. He hadn’t taken them, not­ing he had to brush flies off the tur­tle just to take the pho­tos of the tags in the first place.

Martin asked if he would be will­ing to go back for the tags. And so Ri­ley did. (If you know Jonathan, this doesn’t sur­prise you.)

Martin says the Depart­ment of Fish­eries and Oceans later tapped into its re­sources to re­move the tur­tle so a necropsy could be per­formed to try to de­ter­mine how and why it died. It took a boat, a fork­lift and a boom truck to get the tur­tle from point A to point B af­ter it was “floated out.”

Leatherback tur­tles, aside from be­ing very large, are very heavy. Martin says they can weigh up­wards of 900 to 1,000 pounds.

“We just don’t know what we’re go­ing to learn from each one,” she says, sad about this loss but ever grate­ful to the ran­dom hike that Ri­ley took. “He was a su­per­star in this case be­cause this is such an im­por­tant tur­tle to us.”


A photo of Red Rock­ette when she was tagged by the Cana­dian Sea Tur­tle Net­work.


The re­mote Digby County shore­line where Jonathan Ri­ley found Red Rock­ette.


Red Rock­ette on the Bobal­ito beach in Colom­bia.

A photo of Jonathan Ri­ley on one of his hikes, although not the one when he found the tur­tle.

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