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Are There Sea Turtles In Maine?

These Beautiful Marine Reptiles Make Frequent Visits to the Maine Coast!

Have you ever asked yourself, “what is that giant, dark shape in the water below?” Maybe it was a shark or ocean sunfish passing underneath, or maybe you were just paddling over a sinking driftwood log. There are a myriad of possibilities–and even a chance it could be a turtle. Even in the icy reaches of the Gulf of Maine. 

Infographic displaying relative sizes of different sea turtle species

Seven species of sea turtles roam the seas today, but many more existed in the time of dinosaurs! – graphic courtesy of the Sea Turtle Preservation Society

There are, actually, four different species of sea turtles that can be found in the Gulf of Maine! During the warmest months, July through September, Green, Loggerhead, Atlantic Kemp’s Ridley and Leatherback sea turtles range north from their nesting grounds on tropical beaches to pursue food along the coast of Maine. Of the four, leatherbacks, named after the thick leathery skin that cover their whole body in lieu of a shell, are the most commonly sighted in Casco Bay.

A Giant on Jewell 

In fact, some of us at Portland Paddle discovered a leatherback turtle last summer! While leading separate sea kayak camping expeditions to Jewell Island, Garrison and I, each discovered the same leatherback sea turtle carcass washed up in the rocks of the  intertidal zone. Jewell Island is one of the outermost islands in Casco Bay. It is a beautiful place and Portland Paddle takes camping groups there each summer.  

A dead sea turtle on a cobble rock beach

An unfortunate but fascinating find on a kayak trip! – photo courtesy of P2 guide Melanie Collins

Paddling in the back of the pack to maintain contact with my slower paddlers, I became one of the last to see this large, dark, unmoving mass way up on the rocky ledge that rings Jewell’s western barrier island. My paddlers called back to me: “Is it a seal?”, “It’s massive!”, and “Is it alive?” The answers to those questions, I was soon to ascertain, were: “Nope.”, “Heck yeah it is!”, and “Absolutely not.” Since Garrison had already alerted the Island Caretaker and the Maine Department of Maine Resources by the time my crew spotted the strange dark shape along the high tide line, I was free to squeal in excitement, execute a risky (and not recommended) rocky ledge landing in the undulating swell, and toss rapid-fire sea turtle facts at my captive audience bobbing in their tandem sea kayaks just off shore. 

It was exciting to stand on the rocks at the water’s edge and look over at the massive carcass on the rocks, but I was careful not to approach the animal. It is never safe to approach any stranded marine animal, living or dead. An injured or cornered animal is always dangerous no matter the size, and leatherback sea turtles can grow close to eight feet long and weigh in at over a thousand pounds. Even when deceased, marine life can carry bacteria on and around their body including, but not limited to, necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacteria. Yep, you heard me. Flesh. Eating. Point being, despite the overwhelming thrill of discovery, we did not closely approach the animal. Leave that to the proper authorities, with the proper equipment. And in regards to the animal’s safety, even if it is immobile and appears calm, an increase in stress as you, a potential predator, approaches can divert an animal’s energy from necessary healing action to an unnecessary stress response. Please be respectful. Call the authorities and observe from a distance.

Luckily for us, one does not have to be close to observe a leatherback sea turtle. These prehistoric behemoths are notable for their size. In fact, leatherback sea turtles are so large that they have almost no natural predators. Only large sharks and orca whales will prey on them, and then only very rarely. They are the largest of the seven species of sea turtles that roam modern oceans. They are, however, more closely related to sea-going extinct reptiles than to other turtles. They left all the rest of their relatives in the fossil record. You are looking at a living (oops, or recently deceased) fossil! 

Cool huh?

Our Very Own Modern Dinosaurs

The leatherback’s large size is not just a relic of time gone by, but an active asset in their lives. While most reptiles, as ectotherms (you may have heard the term “cold-blooded”), must actively move to a warmer or colder place to raise or lower their body temperature, leatherbacks can regulate their temperature internally. Though it was hotly debated for many years, recent studies have confirmed that leatherbacks are able to maintain internal body temperatures both warmer and cooler than the  water surrounding them. They are endothermic, or “warm-blooded”, just like you and I. 

Their large size aids in the retention of heat. Layers of skin, fat and muscle protects inner organs from heat loss. They also increase their flipper stroke frequency, they turn on the turbo, to increase heat in their bodies. So to maintain their size and warmth, leatherbacks must eat a LOT. Lucky for them, their favorite food doesn’t swim very fast.

a leatherback sea turtle swimming under water

A leatherback in the water. Photo courtesy of Jason Isley / Scubazoo

In fact, their food does not swim very much at all. Our turtles are gelatinivores, which means they are one of the few animals which eat jellyfish! Jellyfish are drifters, floating wherever the ocean currents take them. Leatherbacks seek out jellyfish “blooms.” These are enormous clouds of jellyfish drifting in the water column. Jellyfish are mostly water and leatherbacks have an enormous bulk to keep up, so they soar through the jellies consuming dozens of individuals in each mouthful. Now, you may be thinking “Jellyfish? Really? Aren’t they dangerous?” But our leathery sea friends are specifically equipped to consume these toxic treats. Thick leathery skin protects them from the jellyfish stings and rows of spiny protrusions called papillae line the turtles’ throats to prevent jellyfish from escaping  when the turtles expel excess sea water before they swallow. 

Creature Cameo

Because of these papillae, it is quite frightening to look down a leatherback sea turtle’s gullet. So frightening, in fact, that when trying to create a visual representation of the mythical Kraken in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean series, the modern moviemakers found their inspiration in the mouth and throat of our favorite modern dinosaur. The scene where Captain Jack jumps into the mouth of the beast, the image he is jumping into looks remarkably like the mouth of a giant leatherback sea turtle, complete with the sinister looking spiked papillae that extend down the beastie’s throat.

Veterinarians examine the inside of a leatherback's mouth, showing the spiky papillae

A leatherback’s throat. Spiky!

Lucky for us, leatherbacks pose no real threat to humans. Even leatherbacks are a mere speck within the vastness of the ocean and it is unusual for an individual human to come in contact with an individual turtle. And lucky for the turtle, we don’t chase the same prey. 

A clip from the Pirates of the Carribean movies showing the Kraken's spiky mouth

Captain Jack’s in trouble

However, humans still pose a significant threat to leatherback turtles. We’re not the best at cleaning up after ourselves and loads of our trash end up in ocean basins where sea turtles search for food. And turtles, not known for their keen eyesight or discerning brains, often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. In particularly polluted sections of the ocean leatherbacks have been known to eat and eat and eat and still starve to death. They are unaware that they are consuming plastic bags, not jellyfish. So please, clean up after yourselves out there! And while you’re out there playing and working in the Gulf of Maine keep an eye out for the largest turtle on earth.

If you should see a sea turtle in distress, such as beached or entangled in fishing line, it is not recommended that you try to help it yourself! Instead, contact Marine Mammals of Maine (1-800-532-9551), who will be able to assess the situation and either respond themselves or direct other resources to assist the animal. And of course, if you are lucky enough to see one of these beautiful creatures in the wild, snap a picture and tell us all about it@

 

by Melanie Collins

Melanie is a Portland Paddle guide, ACA certified kayak instructor, ski instructor, environmental educator, and outdoors writer. Despite growing up paddling in New England, she first fell in love with ocean kayaking while living on an island off the coast of southern California. There she found the joys of ocean exploration, camping on beaches, and paddling through sea caves. When not exploring New England’s waters and mountains you can likely find her dancing, practicing acro, committing to too many book clubs, or enjoying some really good eats.