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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Rescuing a Huge Leatherback Sea Turtle

Ken Warren from our South Florida Ecological Services Office tells us about some important (and heavy) work.

leatherback rescue
Rescuers work to safely remove a leatherback sea turtle trapped in waters near a South Florida power plant. Photo by Jeff Howe/USFWS

Eight hundred pounds of anything is a heavy lift--even for a lot of people with a big crane and adrenaline pumping because they were saving a massive leatherback sea turtle trapped in waters near a South Florida power plant.

leatherback rescue
It took quite a bit of teamwork to manually lift the 800-pound turtle out of the water. Photo by Jeff Howe/USFWS

On February 19, a leatherback sea turtle was entrained at the St. Lucie Florida Power and Light plant.  Due to its size, InWater Research Group (IRG) a nonprofit group responsible for capturing and tagging sea turtles coming into the power plant, was summoned.  Steve Traxler, an IRG board member, was called to help capture, tag, transport and release the turtle ASAP. 

leatherback rescue
The sea turtle was walked down a hill toward the beach where it was released. Photo by Jeff Howe/USFWS

Steve works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the Peninsular Florida Landscape Conservation Cooperative’s Science Coordinator.  He recruited and organized a number of folks he works with at the South Florida Ecological Services Office--Jeff Howe, Mary Peterson, John Wrublik, Shana DiPalma, Layne Bolen and Dave Bender, as well as folks from co-located offices (John Galvez  of the Peninsular Florida Fisheries Office), Kathy Burchett (Refuge Supervisor Area II) and Tim Towles (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). They all either participated in the rescue/relocation or just took the opportunity to see one of these magnificent reptiles up close. 

The water was chilly, but the rescue team’s spirits were warm and high as the capture went smoothly.  The turtle had not been previously tagged, and both flipper tags and passive integrated transponder tags were inserted.  The turtle was safely removed from the water, transported to the beach and released back into the ocean where it swam away. “Participating in wildlife rescues is a rewarding experience. This was a great opportunity for all of us to get away from our desks and do something directly for one of the many species we work to protect as Service employees in South Florida,”Steve says.

The total capture and release time was about an hour. 

leatherback rescue
Waves from the Atlantic Ocean greeted the massive turtle as it made its way back into the sea. Photo by Jeff Howe/USFWS

The leatherback is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. It’s the largest, deepest diving, and most migratory and wide ranging of all sea turtles.  An adult leatherback can reach 4 to 8 feet in length and 500 to 2000 pounds in weight.  Its shell is composed of a mosaic of small bones covered by firm, rubbery skin with seven longitudinal ridges or keels--hence the name“leatherback.” 

IRG  has captured, tagged and released thousands of sea turtles (mostly loggerhead and green) at the power plant, as well as for demographic projects around Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.  IRG collaborates with numerous agencies and universities throughout the U.S. and other countries.


The article called it a amphibian, since it lays its eggs on land doesn't that make it a reptile ?
# Posted By David Johnson | 3/10/16 12:48 PM

Whoops, thanks for catching that, David. The leatherback is one of the largest living reptiles in the world.
# Posted By Matt Trott,Fish and Wildlife Service | 3/10/16 1:15 PM

I wonder what the estimated age was of this individual?
# Posted By | 3/11/16 12:50 PM
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