Look out for leatherbacks

We’re right in the middle of the turtle spotting season – so keep your eyes peeled for this endangered species swimming off the coast

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) needs help in recording the movements of one of the lesser spotted visitors to UK shores and is urging everyone from coastal path walkers to sea users to look out for leatherbacks.

Weighing up to a tonne and measuring almost three metres in length, these incredible creatures – which resemble a large, black leather settee – are unlike any other reptile in that they can maintain their own body heat up to 18 degrees centigrade warmer than even the chilliest of British summer seas.

While leatherback turtle populations face extinction in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, many nesting populations in the Atlantic appear to be increasing.

MCS biodiversity programme manager Peter Richardson says it is unclear why the Atlantic Ocean has become the last stronghold for the leatherback turtles. “While conservation action at important nesting beaches is likely to be playing a part, it may also be due to the increasing availability of their jellyfish prey, combined with collapses in the populations of predatory fish such as tuna and sharks,” says Dr Richardson.

August is the peak time to see leatherback turtles in UK waters as they arrive from their nesting grounds in the Caribbean to refuel on our abundant seasonal jellyfish blooms.

So far this year, 12 sightings have been reported from south-west Wales and England, seven of which have been in the past fortnight. “The leatherback is the largest of all marine turtle species and, at a distance, could be mistaken for a floating log, but if you approach them slowly and carefully, once you see their large reptilian head, massive flippers and ridged leathery shell, you can’t mistake them for anything else,” says Dr Richardson.

Retired submarine engineer Godfrey Day, from Hampshire, was holidaying in Cornwall when he spotted a leatherback just south of St Agnes Head in late July. “We were walking back along the low route from the old mine works at Chapel Porth when we saw this big thing floating in the water. I immediately thought it was a sunfish but, when I got the binoculars out, I could see it was a leatherback. I’d say it was between six to eight feet long and it was wallowing on the surface about 50 yards from the cliff. Interestingly, it was missing its left fore flipper – there was a white scar where it should have been. We watched it for about 15 minutes.”

MCS has been encouraging the reporting of marine turtles in UK waters since 2001, and leatherbacks make up 75 per cent of those sightings already recorded. To help identify turtles in UK waters, spotters can download the UK Turtle Code, created by MCS with support from Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. The code describes the different species, how to identify them and who to report them to. UK and Ireland turtle encounters can also be reported to MCS online at www.mcsuk.org.

The leatherback turtle (Latin name Dermochelys coriacea) is listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). There are seven species of marine turtle swimming the world’s oceans and five species have been recorded in UK and Irish waters.

While leatherbacks migrate to British seas every summer to feed on jellyfish, the loggerhead (Caretta caretta), Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) prefer warmer climates and only occur here as weather-blown strays. Analyses of stomach contents of dead leatherbacks stranded on UK shores have revealed that they feed on lion’s mane, blue, barrel, moon, mauve stinger and compass jellyfish while in UK waters.