Efforts continue to protect leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles

The tribal shield hanging on the wall of my workshop is not a tribal shield at all but the shell of a loggerhead turtle about 60 cm long. Its warlike look is enhanced by bony spikes around the edge where our dog, sniffing out the creature buried between leeks and potatoes, chewed on the edge of the shell.

I had to go back four decades in Another Life to find my drawing of the loggerhead lounging in the wheelbarrow as I pushed it from the tide line. It was very dead and smelly so I was glad I didn’t meet anyone on the boreen.

1982 seems to have been a year for dead turtles as I found another in December, this time a small Kemp’s Ridley from the Gulf of Mexico. Stunned by the cold North Atlantic, he left to marinate in the “Zoo of the Dead” at Dublin’s Natural History Museum.

Kemp’s turtle, as round as a dinner plate and named after a fisherman from Florida, is the rarest, smallest and most vulnerable of the hard-shelled turtles reaching Ireland. Hatched on a beach in the Gulf of Mexico in the kind of mass event familiar from wildlife television, it heads for currents that sweep through the North Atlantic Gyre and the stormy shores of those islands.

The loggerhead sea turtle, too, mainly arrives as a juvenile, about three or four years old in an ocean phase of its life. Hatched in well-protected “rookeries” from Florida to North Carolina and at a newly documented site in the Cape Verde Islands, it can take a female over 30 years to reach sexual maturity and return to dig a trench sandy for her eggs.

Loggerheads that wash up on West Irish beaches in winter, often following storms, can be totally comatose, but can sometimes be restored and released after expert care in an aquarium.

Dingle Oceanworld rehabilitated seven loggerheads, slowly restoring their body weight with fish food and healing fin injuries (often caused by shark bites) before releasing them back into the wild.

In 1984, I was engaged in a young amateur naturalist’s passionate crusade to save the life of the world’s largest turtle, the leatherback turtle.

In December, Galway Atlantaquaria attempted to revive a loggerhead found stranded on its back on rocks near Carna, but raising its temperature from cold shock ultimately failed.

In Donegal in 2019, a loggerhead, around nine months old and weighing just a few hundred grams, was found on the beach by a local family and taken to the Exploris Aquarium in Co Down. Restored to 25 kilos, Aer Lingus airlifted him to an animal center in Gran Canaria last September. The Azores in the middle of the Atlantic are a favorite gathering place for loggerheads.

So much for the hard-shelled turtles, swept up to the northern edge of their oceanic arena. However, most sightings and records of turtles around Ireland are of a creature on a very different scale.

In 1984, I was engaged in a young amateur naturalist’s passionate crusade to save the life of the world’s largest turtle, the leatherback turtle. It is the one with a huge hard black rubber like a carapace, streaked from front to back, and fins about 2 meters wide. Hatched on a beach in Venezuela, its migration north to these islands is a deliberate journey to summer seas full of jellyfish.

I imagined this childish and sweet silhouette in a fisherman’s bar in Killybegs, engaging the men in blue jerseys

Gabriel King became involved with the leatherback sea turtles of Ireland when he found a catch of one in a driftnet and persuaded the fishermen accompanying him to let it go to Quilty Co Clare. At that time, the turtle was often considered rare and strange and carried ashore for public amazement. My first encounter was at such a display on a slipway at Achill: I noted the ‘tears’ in the animal’s eyes, excreting the salt from its diet of jellyfish as it slowly exhaled on the dock .

King was shocked to find that the leatherback turtle had no protections in wildlife law (it does now, thanks in large part to him). He rode out on his bicycle to visit all the fishing ports, collecting records on leatherback turtles and advocating for them to be disentangled from nets, ropes and longlines. I imagined this childish, sweet silhouette in a fisherman’s bar in Killybegs, engaging the men in blue jerseys.

Today, King has the active support of Simon Berrow, of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. And there he is, still on assignment, but this time officially for the Northern Ireland Environment and Heritage Service.

He took five months in 2006 to visit “every port, harbour, pier and marina” on the north coast of Ireland, from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle. It produced 65 new records of turtles, mostly leatherbacks, and further proof of coastal goodwill. Fishermen “continue to go to great lengths”, King reported, “often at great risk to their lives, to release without harm turtles accidentally caught in nets and ropes”.

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