From three feet away, the pungent odor threatened to overwhelm me as hot gases released as byproduct from decomposition created a powerful stench. But the uncomfortable olfactory experience was worth the price to get a good look at the magnificently curious animal that someone had apparently propped up on the marsh bank.
Sadly, we were looking at a corpse of the largest turtle in the world today, the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea). Perhaps a large vessel had cut the huge swath across its carapace, which is a curious patchwork of hundreds of irregular bony plates covered with a leathery skin. It looked like a thick rubber mat, maybe an inch and a half thick, and seemed to be welded to the plastron, giving the sea beast a seamless, barrel-shaped appearance.
It was Kevin DuBois, a wetland scientist for the city of Norfolk who also guides ecology and fly fishing trips along Virginias barrier islands, who pointed out the colossal creature as we kayaked through the Intracoastal Waterway toward Fishermens Island, part of the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge.
The leatherback is so big and so distinctive that scientists have placed it in a separate taxonomic family. The average curved carapace length for adult turtles is more than five feet, and this leatherback exceeded that mark. It was every bit of 600 pounds, probably more, though still well below the species maximum weight of 1,400 pounds.
Leatherbacks range from Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, south to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the Atlantic and Caribbean, the largest nesting assemblages occur in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida. Throughout its range, the leatherback has been listed as endangered for more than 30 years.
During the summer, leatherbacks congregate along the East Coast of the U.S. from the Gulf of Maine south to the middle of Florida. Occasionally a leatherback wanders into Chesapeake waters, presumably chasing such food as jellyfish and other soft-bodied sea animals. It feeds on marine plants as well. Well adapted to ocean life, the leatherback has powerful flippers to propel it through water.
Leatherbacks do not nest often enough in the U.S. for an accurate trend, the National Marine Fisheries Service reports. But the Services recovery plan for the leatherbacks concludes that nesting patterns do appear stable here, though the population faces significant threats from incidental take in commercial fisheries and from marine pollution. Leatherbacks become entangled in longlines, fish traps, buoy anchor lines and other ropes and cables. The offshore commercial shrimp fleet inadvertently captures some 640 leatherbacks a year. Most are released alive, albeit stressed.
Leatherback turtles prefer to nest on open beaches. But their habitat has been compromised by development and erosion, causing eggs to be lost. Other natural factors, such as hurricanes, also destroy nests. Females come ashore in bands and lay their 60 to 100 eggs in holes that have been dug in the sand. Seven weeks later, when the eggs hatch, the babies rush back to the water.
Nesting populations of leatherback sea turtles are especially difficult to discern because the females frequently change beaches. By current estimates, 20,000 to 30,000 female leatherbacks exist worldwide. Compared to other sea turtles, the leatherback appears to have a better chance at survival though the entanglements of man are many.
Despite my naturalists fascination with the dead leatherback, it was a depressing scene. I would have preferred only a glimpse of this mighty sea creature in the open ocean.
Fish are Biting
Bottom fishing for croaker continues red-hot about the Bay, including shell beds in Eastern Bay, Choptank River and Tangier Sound. Spot and white perch are other good bottom-fishing options. For rockfish chumming, the Gas Docks, Diamonds, the Hill and Love Point are popular choices. Flounder can be taken off Brickhouse Bar, Punch Island and Poplar Island. The black drum run has been weak at best, DNRs Marty Gary reports.