How I got to play midwife to a Leatherback Sea Turtle
Updated: Sep 24
By Staci-lee Sherwood
Back on May 31, 2012 I had one of those magical mornings. First was the most beautiful sunrise that looked like the sky was on fire with color. Then I helped a Horseshoe Crab get back into the water after being stranded on her back from high tide. I thought that was more than enough to make for a special day. Then I saw Kate while out looking for new Sea Turtle tracks to record.
This morning’s beach survey was truly a 1 in a 1,000,000. There was a small Leatherback Sea Turtle trying to nest. I saw her at 7am at the end of doing my morning survey and decided to sit down and watch what few people ever get to see. Here in the atlantic our Leatherback Sea Turtles tend to be a little smaller than their larger cousins in the pacific. The atlantic females tend to weigh between 500 – 800 lbs with the males being larger.
Kate as I greeted her for the first time in the early morning
After watching her for a short while she crawled away from what should have been a chamber filled with eggs. As she slowly moved away I could see there wasn’t any chamber she was not able to use her back flippers to dig. Looking at her from the side you could see her back seemed misshapen and while she looked to be healthy she had injuries that wouldn’t allow her to use her back flippers to dig. From the time they crawl out of the water to when they return to the ocean after nesting usually takes about 2 hrs. With her back and back flippers being injured she could mate and drop eggs but not make a nest. This meant she would need a ‘midwife’ to help her complete her motherly task because without intervention she would just lay the eggs on top of the sand where they had no chance of incubating and would be predated by the fox, birds and raccoons that frequent the beach in search of a meal of turtle eggs.
When mama turtles come up onto the beach the use their body to make the indented body pit, they curl their back flippers to dig a deep chamber where they lay their eggs. After that they use all 4 flippers to cover up the nest with sand. Her injuries prevented her from doing this though her instinct was to go through the motions anyway. Seeing that she needed help I called the local rehab.
Rick & Juan digging Kate’s chamber
Thanks to staff from Gumbo Limbo they were able to dig her a chamber and helped slide her back flippers down the side to help aid in her dropping her eggs. She had trouble doing that on her own so I gently squeezed the sack and helped her to drop her eggs. Finally at about noon she did but only about 20 eggs came out. Kate had now been on the beach for at least 5 hours and was getting really tired. Leatherbacks are critically endangered and with declining populations due to losing most of their habitat to an exploding human population and uncontrolled coastal development every attempt must be made to save what’s left for them to nest in.
Kate getting into position to drop her eggs
Finally after being with Kate for more than 7 hours she was done. Her job was finished since Sea Turtles have no relationship with their young. They dig the nest drop the eggs and that’s if for motherhood.
A rare close up of Kate dropping her clutch of eggs into the chamber
This is the type of thing few people ever get to see since most Sea Turtles nest at night when the dark sky gives them protective cover from predators.
When I first spotted her that morning I named May ♥ since this was the month of May. Then her ID tag was spotted and we all discovered this was "KATE" ID # UUN669 tagged 2011 from Marine Life Loggerhead. How amazing it was to have such an experience and knowing that just a handful of us ever got to help Kate continue with her ancestral drive to continue the species for future generations.
Here you can see how large even a small Leatherback can be next to humans
Now it was time for Kate to head back home so 8 of us gently slid a tarp under her and slowly dragged her to the ocean. Her front flipper kept hitting my injured foot and she was heavy ! Just lucky we were all on the beach doing the morning survey at the same time when I saw her and were able help her.
Though Kate looks ferocious they aren’t aggressive at all except some males during mating season
Here she is getting ready to go home tired and exhausted this would not have been possible without human intervention.
Kate finally getting some relief from the hot sun and ready to swim home
Kate’s nest hatched out and one little hatchling was left, we released him later that night
Aside from losing their habitat to development another huge problem they face are plastic balloons which mimic the jellyfish, their main food source, when floating in the water. So many dead Leatherbacks have been found to have a stomach filled with them during a necropsy. With the ocean becoming a permanent toxic soup it’s no wonder marine life is struggling to survive. Sooner rather than later we will be at the point of no return when it will no longer matter what we do it will be too late to save anything. Here’s hoping that sanity returns to earth soon so that critically endangered animals continue to have a home to come back to for their young. Otherwise humans will end up being the only species left on the planet and what a boring and sterile place that would be without the magic of Sea Turtles.
Also published in Emagazine on October 11, 2021
You can read more about Kate's adventure when she made the news here https://thecoastalstar.com/profiles/blogs/nature-gets-a-helping-hand-humans-assist-when-kate-the-leatherbac