Leatherback Turtle Photographed for the First Time Near St Helena Island

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The first documented sighting of a leatherback turtle in St Helena's waters (Photo: Marine Team/St Helena National Trust)

The first recorded sighting of a leatherback turtle in the waters of St Helena was made earlier this month, securing proof for the first time that the island is visited by three different species of turtle. Leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) have been spotted – infrequently – in the area before, but this is the first time that a leatherback has been captured on camera.

According to a report in the St Helena Independent, the turtle was spotted by members of the St Helena National Trust (SHNT) during a routine whale shark survey. The team at first thought it might be a green turtle (Chelonia mydas), which are common to St Helena, but were able to positively identify it as a leatherback once it breached the surface of the ocean close to George Island, a rocky islet located off the eastern shore of St Helena.

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George Island is a small rock outcropping to the east of St Helena's main island, which is located 1200 miles from the African continent (Picture: Google Maps)

'On Wednesday the 21st of April while conducting a routine bone shark [the Saints' local name for whale shark] survey, the Marine Team were incredibly lucky to spot from aboard Egalité an animal approaching the surface of the water,' said Beth Taylor, Leader of the SHNT's Marine Team.

'As we watched from the survey boat, the leatherback exposed its unmistakable speckled dark grey colour and ridged shell, which bear resemblance to the bony ridges that run the length of the whale sharks which St Helena holds dear. The Marine Team proceeded to enter the water and capture photographic and video evidence of the encounter.'

There have been a small number of anecdotal reports of leatherback turtle sightings around St Helena in the past, and a subsequent liaison with the St Helena's Government's Marine Section confirmed that there were two sightings in 2005 and another in 2015.

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The researchers were able to identify the animal as it breached the surface, displaying its ridged shell (Photo: Marine Team/St Helena National Trust)

St Helena's remote South Atlantic location provides a sanctuary for a number of endemic species, plus a wide range of frequent pelagic visitors, leading to a 200-nautical-mile zone around the island being officially designated as an IUCN Category VI Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2016.

Local marine scientists are actively engaged in a number of globally significant marine conservation projects, especially that of the local whale sharks – or bone sharks, to the Saints – as St Helena is one of the only known locations where, between November and April each year, adult male and female whale sharks congregate in equal numbers, almost certainly a sign that the sharks are gathering to mate.

St Helena's research into the sustainability of tuna fisheries also provides invaluable data to ICCAT, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, helping to formulate international policy regarding fishing regulations.

Leatherback turtles are the largest and oldest of all seven species of sea turtle. Unlike the other six species, leatherbacks do not have a hard shell but instead a flexible, smooth, leathery carapace that allows them to dive to great depths. Leatherbacks are currently listed as 'Vulnerable' to extinction on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, with their numbers in decline.

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The new sighting demonstrates the importance of local marine conservation efforts in improving the understanding of the wide variety of species that inhabit St Helena's MPA, soon to be included in a vast array of underwater monitoring systems across the UK Overseas Territories as part of an expansion of the government's  Blue Belt Programme.

After sharing the encounter on social media, SHNT's Marine Team reported that they were 'delighted' to find that news of the sighting 'has evoked fond memories of encounters with this elusive turtle species across the decades from throughout the local community.'

The team is hopeful that documenting the first leatherback turtle sighting will encourage more people to engage with local conservation initiatives from NGOs and relevant government bodies, and report their own unique observations to the long term databases being compiled by the island's scientists.

'The Marine Team encourages anyone who is lucky enough to witness unusual or outstanding marine species or activity, or recalls such an event from their past, to contact the SHG Marine Section at Essex House and submit their observations to the government’s long-term sightings database,' said Taylor. 'Your experiences with our marine environment and its inhabitants can help to highlight just how special it is and inform the actions taken to protect it into the future.'

 

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