Time is running out for embattled Pacific leatherback sea turtles

Clear-skied, low-wind summer days are rare off the coast of California. But they’re a blessing if you’re a researcher tracking down critically endangered leatherback sea turtles. Marine ecologists Scott Benson and Karin Forney, with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, spent many of those days tag-teaming a decades-long research effort to collect data on one of the world’s oldest and largest marine reptiles. Forney sits in the clear belly of a NOAA surveying plane, scanning the dark waters like a hawk, notifying the team when she spots a leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Benson, her husband, is among the scientists on the boat below, prepped at the hull with a large net, anticipating the moment they can heave the prehistoric giant on board. Then comes the sampling: blood tests, tissue samples, attaching transmitters, recording weight. It’s an hour-long ordeal, Benson says, and “an all-consuming task.” In a month and a half, the team gets maybe five good-weather opportunities to collect data on this massive but little-understood species. And it could be their last chance to save this population. NOAA scientists on surveying vessels rely on directions from an aerial survey team, in a plane above, to locate and capture leatherbacks for sampling and tagging procedures. Image by Joel Schumacher (NOAA-ESA Permit #15634). The western Pacific leatherback sea turtle is at high risk of extinction, according to a study published in Global Ecology and Conservation. The researchers, including lead author Benson and co-author Forney, used roughly three decades of data to assess…This article was originally published on Mongabay

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