...flocks of sanderling running along the tide line, little terns hovering above the shallows then diving for their prey; common seals lounging on the sandbanks. Further out to sea, there might be gannets diving torpedo-like for fish; arctic skuas passing by; or perhaps a pod of harbour porpoise. The chances of ever seeing them may be incredibly slim but there are also records of leatherback turtles from our area of the North Sea.
Measuring up to 2 metres in length, the leatherback is the world’s largest turtle. They lay their eggs on sandy tropical beaches but in August and September are present off the west and south coasts of the UK; occasionally they are also seen off the east coast. Unlike other turtles, leatherbacks can maintain their own body temperature and survive in our chilly seas.
Leatherback turtles feed almost exclusively on jellyfish and are drawn into to cooler northern waters to feed on them. Over the summer months, jellyfish numbers increase and gather in dense swarms, attracting the turtles. Once these food sources are depleted they return south to the Caribbean or the coast of west Africa.
Leatherback turtles are classed as critically endangered and at high risk of extinction in the wild. They are threatened by habitat loss, accidental capture in fisheries, boat strikes and the over-harvest of eggs. Tragically, their preference for eating jellyfish also makes them susceptible to eating floating plastic bags which they mistake for food.
A study in 2009 looked at post-mortem reports of more than 400 leatherbacks that had died since 1885. Plastic including bags, balloon fragments, spoons and sweet wrappers, were found in the digestive systems of more than a third of the animals. Plastic may not have been the cause of death of all of the turtles but plastic can block a turtle’s gut, causing bloating, interfering with digestion, and leading to a slow, painful death.
Simply by re-using and recycling plastic bags, and by using more sustainable alternatives, we can all help to secure a future of a species that has swum in the oceans for 100 million years.
Things to do:
Visit Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve: covering three miles of coast south of Skegness, the reserve includes sandy and muddy seashore, sand dunes, saltmarsh and freshwater marsh with ponds and lagoons.
Over the summer months, the visitor centre is open everyday from 10am until 4pm. It includes a gift shop and The Point Café (serving locally source food), and within the Nature Discovery Room there are two marine tanks with a selection of marine animals caught just off the coast.