Mr. Leatherback Visits the Bird’s Head Seascape

Mr. Leatherback atop Anak Krakatau, a volcano born in 1927 on the site of the original Krakatau volcano that exploded in 1883, sending shock waves that were felt around the planet and an ash cloud that blocked the sun for two years.(© Roderic B. Mast)

Hi there, Mr. Leatherback here. If you don’t know me, I’m a sea turtle who travels the world as an ambassador for my kind, bringing the message to humans about how important it is for our oceans to stay clean and healthy. Take it from a turtle — you humans depend on the oceans as much as I do, for your food, climate, recreation, and even the air you breathe! It is important for all of us to understand the threats to the oceans, and what we can do about it.

I am back in Indonesia with some of my human friends from Conservation International (CI). We are here in Cenderawasih Bay on the Bird’s Head Peninsula (in the northwest corner of the island of New Guinea). As my old pal Mark Erdmann pointed out a few days ago, it’s quite an amazing place for marine life, not to mention a really important terrestrial wilderness site and a super-interesting place for traditional human cultures as well. There are more than 700 different languages spoken on this island, making it the site of highest language and cultural diversity on the planet.

Visiting children in the town of Yende, Indonesia. (© Roderic B. Mast)

I was born on the other side of the Pacific in Costa Rica, where my kind are few and far between. In the Eastern Pacific, leatherbacks have declined by as much as 90 percent in the past quarter century.

Here in the Western Pacific, we are not feeling quite so much pain. The largest nesting population for leatherbacks in the Pacific is right here in Indonesia at a beach called Jamursba-Medi, and thousands of female leatherbacks lay their eggs here every year. After nesting, these same turtles travel around looking for food; one turtle tagged here a few years ago swam 12,774 miles [20,558 kilometers] over a period of 647 days to get to feeding grounds near Oregon in the U.S., one of the longest migrations ever recorded for a marine vertebrate! And she didn’t stop there — she turned around and headed back toward Hawaii before her satellite tag popped out. Now, I like to swim as much as the next turtle, and I will go far for my favorite food of jellyfish, but it makes my flippers hurt just thinking about going that far.

All seven species of turtles have to live a pretty cautious lifestyle these days. Wherever we go, we have to keep an eye out for things like fishing nets and longlines, because we can get tangled and drown. We also need to worry about losing our nesting beaches, since people keep putting up hotels and turning on bright lights that make it difficult for us to come out to lay our eggs. We have noticed that things are heating up — literally — when it comes to global climate change, and we are a little worried that the results of sea level rise and higher water temperatures could be a real problem for us. Some people still hunt and eat us, or use our shells to make jewelry.

Another problem that all of you humans seem to be a part of is plastic pollution — all those single-use plastic bottles, bags and six-pack holders eventually wind up in ocean where they look a lot like jellyfish, and my leatherback buddies and I eat them accidentally. Just yesterday I nearly choked on a plastic bag (see video below). So do us a favor and use reusable bags and water bottles, so all that junk doesn’t end up in our ocean home.

I stopped in the small town of Yende just the other day to say hello to some of the local humans. The kids seemed happy to see me, and they showed me around their beautiful home.

I’ve talked to a few of my new leatherback chums this week, too. They are very grateful for all the work humans are doing to help protect their important nesting beaches, and we all say thanks for helping to expand protected areas in the Bird’s Head Seascape and all throughout the Pacific.

That’s all for now. Best fishes!

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