Leatherback Turtles at the Chatham Islands

Leatherback turtle. Photo: Rodney TimesLeatherback turtle. Photo: Rodney TimesWith summer well on it's way, the Chatham Islands leatherback turtle project is up and running again. Like last summer, the project aims to collect sighting data of leatherback turtles at the Chatham Islands to better understand these seasonal visitors to our waters. As sea surface temperatures rise during the summer, the sea around the islands becomes highly productive for zooplankton (like jelly fish) – a major food source for leatherbacks. This high concentration of jelly fish attracts wandering leatherbacks all the way from the tropics. With the success last year, where several people provided sighting information and even photos of stranded leatherback turtles, the project will run again this year. Please report any sightings directly to the Department of Conservation on 03 3050098. This project is reliant on the support of you and your local community, so a big thank you to those who provided information. DOC also have sighting and identification cards available to give away.

To remind you about the project, here's a recap.

Leatherback turtles are reptiles – living relics from the age of the dinosaurs – and they are the largest living reptile on the planet today. Sadly, over-harvesting of leatherback turtle eggs combined with the deaths of adult turtles by marine pollution has led to massive declines in their populations. They are already nearly extinct in Malaysia, and may become extinct in Mexico and Costa Rica within the next ten years. That's why this project is so important to help get a better understanding of this species before we lose them forever.

But why the Chatham Islands? Aren't marine turtles only found in the tropics? With its temperate climate and cool waters, wouldn't the Chatham Islands be one of the most unlikely places to look for highly endangered marine turtles? Yes, or so we once thought. Unlike mammals, reptiles can't control their body temperature, and so rely on the sun and seawater to warm themselves. But, researchers are now learning that leatherback turtles will undertake seasonal trips into cold, high latiutudewaters, in search of their favoured prey – jellyfish and salp. Little did we suspect that leatherback turtles did this in our part of the world. Recent satellite tagging studies have tracked the southward migration of post-nesting female leatherbacks from the Solomon Islands right down into the temperate waters of New Zealand.

And not all knowledge comes from science – the local and historical experiences of people on the water are extremely beneficial to quality research. This is where the members of your local community are so important. Interviews and reports collected last summer have uncovered around 33 records of leatherback turtles in and around the waters of the Chatham Islands since the 1950s. This is vastly different to the official records of the past, with only t found.

By combining the results of tagging studies with reports of sightings by the community, we have uncovered an important secret about one of the most highly endangered and elusive creatures of the sea. We now know that New Zealand waters may be an important foraging ground – knowledge that could prove critical to the successful conservation of this unique species in the Pacific Ocean. Please help the Chatham Island leatherback turtle project and keep your eyes open for the largest living reptile swimming in your waters this summer.

Chatham Islands Time

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