George Shillinger, in Monterey, CA -- Where in the world is Stephanie Colburtle, the leatherback turtle? One of the divas of the Great Turtle Race, Stephanie hasn’t sent us a message for more than 100 days. Her last position was just west of the Galapagos Islands. At that time, she’d paddled 925 miles since she left the beach where she laid her eggs and muscled to the front of April’s Great Turtle Race…until Billie sailed past her at the last minute.
We’re a little concerned about her and three other turtles: Windy, Champira and Drexelina. The other seven turtles – Genevieve, Sundae, Turtleocity, Freedom, Purple Lightning, Billie, and Saphira -- are well on their way to their the feeding grounds off Peru and Chile. In the current friendly competition -- the Summer-to-Summer Solstice Super Swimathon – each has covered more than 2,400 miles since they left their nesting beaches! That’s more than 10 miles a day…not bad for a leatherback.
Genevieve’s already traveled further than the United States is wide…3,989 miles! Sundae, the laggard on the beach in the Great Turtle Race, has swum 3,276 miles. If the Summer-to-Summer Solstice Super Swimathon ended today, she’d be in a respectable third place! Here's Stephanie's track.
When we told TOPP researcher Scott Eckert about this, he noted: “Shy of a turtle being recaptured, there is no way to predict why we are no longer hearing from the turtle or even if it is still alive.” Eckert is director of science for the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) located at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment Marine Laboratory, in Beaufort, N.C.
What we do know is that all living leatherbacks are in trouble -- 95 percent of them have disappeared in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
So I’m concerned about each one, and with the help of Eckert and some other friends who are turtle, fishing and satellite-tagging experts, this week I'm going to explore all of these possibilities:
-- A great white shark ate Stephanie, Windy, Saphira and Drexelina.
-- They died of old age.
-- Their tags or harnesses stopped working.
-- Commercial fishermen accidentally caught them.
-- They died after eating plastic bags that looked like jellyfish
After we explore all the possibilities, then you can tell us what you think happened to our leatherbacks.
DID A GREAT WHITE SHARK EAT STEPHANIE?
I’ve heard that white sharks will go after leatherbacks.
TOPP researcher Jim Spotila, a turtle researcher who’s been monitoring leatherbacks in Costa Rica for decades, has also heard that great whites attack leatherbacks, but he thinks it’s unlikely that a great white could eat a leatherback. “We see some turtles with a piece of a flipper missing, or only one back flipper,” he says. The Drexel University professor founded the Leatherback Trust to save the leatherback turtle from extinction. “It’s always the back flipper. We’ve seen one leatherback who nests at Playa Grande who has no back flippers at all. When she crawls up the beach, and starts trying to excavate her nest, the students dig it for her. They call her “Stumpy”.
Although these giant leatherbacks don’t move well on land, they maneuver like fighter jets in the water, says Spotila, and can escape from sharks.
“I’ve seen an article about two guys in a small boat in the Pacific islands. They noticed a leatherback turtle rapidly swimming back and forth. They got closer and saw that a large shark was chasing the turtle. The shark gave up, but the turtle was still so upset that it charged the boat.”
Orcas (killer whales) and tiger sharks, which can saw through the shell with their unique teeth, have been observed feeding on leatherbacks.