The leatherback sea turtle is likely the fastest growing reptile in the world. Starting their lives as 40- to 50-gram hatchlings, leatherbacks grow 10,000 times this size over the course of their lives. How? By chowing down—a lot. In order to grow to epic proportions, hatchlings eat their body mass in food every day—as adults they eat 50 per cent of their body mass per day. However, leatherbacks lack the strong jaws and teeth they’d need to eat hardbodied prey, like crustaceans. As a result, their diet is restricted to soft-bodied, often gelatinous prey like jellyfish, which they grab with two cusps on their upper and lower jaw that help prevent the jellyfish from escaping. Their throats are lined with sharp spines that latch on and shred the jellyfish into pieces as they swallow.
The Canadian Sea Turtle Network found that Atlantic Canadian waters are crucial to leatherbacks. Every July and August, turtles arrive from the U.S.A., Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Anguilla, Venezuela, Grenada, Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana to forage in Canadian waters. They can usually be found just off the coast of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence, and they have been spotted in the Bay of Fundy as well. So why are leatherbacks lured to Canada? Location, location, location. The Scotian Shelf is closer to major nesting areas in the western Atlantic—making the turtles’ journey easier—and leatherbacks heading northward along the U.S. coast are channelled onto the Scotian Shelf. Moreover, the Atlantic coast has high zooplankton and gelatinous populations, making Atlantic Canada the ideal locale for foraging.
Approximately 6.4 tons of marine debris is dumped into our oceans every year, and between 60 and 80 per cent of it is made up of plastics. Moreover, 60 per cent of the trash strewn on the beach and 90 per cent of debris floating in oceans is plastic. To leatherback sea turtles, many of these bits look like jellyfish, which the turtles gobble down. While the turtles may be able to digest smaller plastic pieces, the larger pieces can plug up the digestive passage and cause internal injury and infection.
In the last 40 years, over a third of the leatherback sea turtles examined had ingested plastic. Where does all the plastic come from? You might be surprised to hear that approximately 80 per cent is from land—landfills, industrial facilities, sewage and storm runoff. The remaining 20 per cent is due to merchant and passenger ships, offshore oil and gas platforms, recreational, commercial and military craft and fish-farming operations.