Critically Endangered Leatherback Turtle from Costa Rica Makes Rare Visit to Florida

Date: January 29, 2001
Contact: Dan Evans
(352) 373-6441

A critically endangered leatherback turtle bearing flipper tags applied when it was nesting on the beach in Pacuare Nature Reserve, Costa Rica, in 1994 caused a sensation in Florida last Friday (January 26, 2001). Seven years after researchers tagged the turtle in Costa Rica, the immense female leatherback was encountered inside the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast, where leatherbacks have never before been seen. Though bearing numbered flipper tags, it took researchers several days to determine exactly where the turtle had originated.

The turtle emerged during the middle of the day on a bayside beach and dug an egg chamber but never laid any eggs. Passers by watched in awe as a rescue team from Sea World and the U.S. Coast Guard arrived and took the mammoth turtle by boat to deep waters, where leatherbacks normally live, and released it unharmed. Algae growth on the turtle’s back suggests it had been in the lagoon for as long as a week.

“This emphasizes the importance of international cooperation in sea turtle conservation and research,” said Sebastian Troëng, Research Coordinator for Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC), a group that coordinates leatherback tagging and protection Programs in Costa Rica. “These creatures are a shared resource; they don’t recognize international borders, so people in many countries have to work together to improve the situation for these endangered animals,” he added.

This particular leatherback was tagged by biologists from the University of Costa Rica working in the private Pacuare Nature Reserve as part of a Caribbean leatherback study funded by the nonprofit Caribbean Conservation Corporation. The Pacuare Reserve is located just south of Tortuguero National Park, where CCC has conducted sea turtle tagging Programs every year since the 1950s.

Leatherbacks, the largest of all sea turtles, are now considered critically endangered, since closely monitored Pacific Ocean populations have crashed in recent years—due primarly to incidental capture by commercial fishing operations. The leatherback population nesting on the Caribbean shore of Costa Rica may now represent the third largest nesting aggregation in the world, according to a recent analysis by biologists from Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Asociación ANAI and the Endangered Wildlife Trust. The major threats facing this leatherback population are the killing of nesting females on some nesting beaches and illegal egg harvesting. CCC works closely with the Costa Rican government to study and protect leatherbacks on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Volunteers and donors are needed to continue these important programs. Visit CCC’s Participant Research Programs for more information.

For photos of leatherbacks and other sea turtles, visit Media Files.

Images courtesy of Karrie Singel. Leatherback on Florida beach image taken by Dave McGowen. Coast Guard loading turtle onto boat image taken by Amy Spenser.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy, formerly known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization based in Florida with offices and projects in several other locations. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest and most accomplished sea turtle organization in the world. Since its founding in 1959, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s work has greatly improved the survival outlook for several species of sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy has as its mission the protection of sea turtles and the habitats upon which they depend. To achieve its mission, the Sea Turtle Conservancy uses research, habitat protection, public education, community outreach, networking and advocacy as its basic tools. These tools are applied in both international and domestic programs focusing on geographic areas that are globally important to sea turtle survival. For more information, visit the STC website or call (800) 678-7853.