Saturday, 2:15 PM
Boaters urged to avoid rare leatherback turtles
A New England Aquarium expert tended to a stranded leatherback that washed up on Nauset Beach in Orleans in 2005.
By Casey Ramsdell, Globe Correspondent
Federal officials are cautioning boaters in the waters off Massachusetts to steer clear of leatherback turtles, which have arrived in the area in record numbers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued the warning in an attempt to protect the turtles, which can grow to be 6 1/2 feet long and weigh 2,000 pounds. The animals can be injured or killed by propellers or fishing lines.
Sara McNulty, NOAA sea turtle stranding coordinator for the Northeast region, said officials thought it was important to issue a warning as Labor Day, a popular time for boating, approaches.
An unusual number of turtles have been spotted swimming in Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds. Reports of dead, stranded, or injured turtles are also setting records.
"It is probably the second busiest year in the 20 to 30 years that I have been watching the leatherback," said Bob Prescott, director of Massachusetts Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
He said that people are reporting seeing 10 to 12 of the animals at one time, which is "unheard-of in Massachusetts."
The reason for the leatherback explosion is an increase in the jellyfish population, said Prescott. The leatherback migrates through Massachusetts waters each year, but is staying longer this year because there are more jellyfish to feed on.
Prescott said the turtles are currently concentrated mostly to the south of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, which means they are out of major shipping lanes, but they have been sighted elsewhere and it is important for boaters to be careful.
The Coast Guard has been broadcasting regular reminders to boaters asking them to use caution and reduce speeds in areas where turtles might be floating.
"It is an interesting animal to see," said Prescott. "It is prime time to see them and it is a fun activity to go slow and see them."
According to NOAA, there are several things boaters should remember when cruising near the turtles. These include giving turtles space, putting the engine in neutral once a turtle is spotted, and letting it pass. Officials also urged people to watch their lines and bait at all times to avoid entanglement, wear polarized sunglasses so it's easier to see the creatures in the water, and use caution when approaching an area with large numbers of jellyfish.
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