By Sarah Ward
Living Seas Officer
Leatherback Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are the largest of all turtles and the most migratory, known for making cross-Pacific and –Atlantic journeys. Turtles are not an everyday occurance in UK waters, however occasionally individuals will be spotted – Leatherbacks are the most commonly seen species, but other species such as Kemp’s Ridley and Loggerhead Turtles have also been reported.
Astonishingly, a Leatherback Turtle was spotted last month just off Brighton, by a local pleasure boat which was visiting the Rampion Offshore Windfarm. Most UK sightings of turtles are around Cornwall and southern Wales, it’s incredibly rare to spot one this far east in the Channel. Furthermore, turtle sightings tend to be during the warmer summer months, when the jellyfish are abundant – one of their main sources of food. Leatherback Turtles are unique amongst sea turtles in that they are able to cope with colder seas, as low as 5°C, due to their specialised circulatory system; it was not reported that the individual sighted last month was showing any signs of distress.
Sightings of Leatherback Turtles are made even more rare due to their behaviour – they generally only tend to come to the surface to breathe, and can hold their breath underwater for several hours at a time. They also tend to live a solitary existence, coming together only to breed in tropical seas.
Sadly, leatherbacks are listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN red list, and their populations are declining. They are particularly at risk from entanglement in fishing gear, and have often been reported eating plastic, which they mistake for food items. Turtles are also likely to be affected by climate change, particularly as the sex of hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the nest – rising temperatures will likely cause a higher ratio of females, as females are produced at warmer temperatures than males.
If you do spot a turtle, don’t forget to report your sighting, and take a look at the UK Turtle Code for more information.