Mystery of a Newfoundland Leatherback Sea Turtle

In 2006 my dad and I packed our black F-150 and drove a total of 6,000 miles. We took Interstate highways before and after we were in Canada and while in Canada we toured the Atlantic provinces. We barely touched on Newfoundland before we had to start heading back (funding and free time being the limited resources) but we had the opportunity to meet a leatherback sea turtle.

From our perspective, it was a monster from a movie. We were walking down the river through our campground at J. T. Cheeseman Provincial Park to the beach at the estuary one morning. I rounded the corner and this mass of dark gray and lighter color speckles. I gave it a wide berth, briefly overtaken by paranoia. Once I was sure it wasn’t going to leap to life and come after me, I approached it.

sea turtle
An old photo of my Newfoundland leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) friend on an estuary beach.

Then I thought it was a whale. Truly, until the details seep into your brain, a dead leatherback sea turtle does not look anything like a sea turtle. For one, at the time I didn’t know turtles could get so big. It was maybe 4 ft at the crest of its soft back and maybe 8 ft long and 5 ft across—the memory is vague but I remember the numerical estimations that we made that morning. It was a ginormous creature. To this day it is the greatest zoological find of our amateur adventurer lives.

I say this despite the misfortune of the turtle. I covered this misfortune with the power of GIMP’s clone tool, but this turtle fought through a series of unfortunate events. Much of it I assumed to be due to the seagulls that flocked around it before I arrived: gory damage to the eyes. As surprising it was to see that, I accept that is part of nature. But my dad and I were at a loss to describe the other injuries: lacerations to the face, neck, front flippers and a region on the right side of the belly that probably continued under the belly. We made careful mental notes and eventually returned to our campsite because we had a ferry to Nova Scotia to catch.

Flickr - Rainbirder - LEVIATHAN.jpg
Wiki image submitted by Steve Garvie that compares the size of a human to a smaller leatherback. (It makes me appreciate just how big was the one I saw.)

While waiting for the ferry to arrive we found breakfast at the only place in Port Aux Basque that was open before 10 am: Tim Hortons. Other locals new this fact as well and had gathered for their morning socializing. Dad told them about our turtle and they were ecstatic to hear about it. They said that was a leatherback and they were rare this far north at this time of the year. They wanted to know where we found it so they could witness it. Fair fascination for rural folk, I speculated. At least I hope there were no degrading intentions behind it. They also said the injuries were probably from a shark and the turtle had purposefully beached itself.

At first I found this hard to believe. Part of this was the misconception my teen self had that larger sharks swam in warm waters. This is not true. Atlantic Canada boasts 27 species of shark and many of them are quite large, both the filter feeders (like the basking shark) and the ones that eat dead whales and seals (such as the Greenland shark). I’m pretty sure with that appetite a Greenland shark is perfectly capable of taking a leatherback.

However, that doesn’t add up as well as another theory. The turtle had lacerations like that of a linear cut. Maybe that doesn’t mean much, but other than the belly injury they didn’t look like they came from a set of jaws.

Currently I’m reading Voyage of the Sea Turtle: in Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur by Carl Safina. Frankly, his descriptions of fishing line assaults to leatherbacks sound very similar to the ones we saw.

It will remain a theory. Despite the sad circumstances for the turtle I do treasure that morning. I may never see such a creature again, let alone up close. The detective work born from concern and curiosity added a dimension of deeper meaning and involvement to that experience and our three-week trip overall.


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