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Voyage of the Pacific Leatherback

A short story by NOAA Fisheries scientist Kelly Stewart, Ph.D., with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

I’m old and I’ve crossed the Pacific Ocean many times. I am getting close to Barra de la Cruz, my Mexican home. This is where I hatched, and where I’ve been nesting for over thirty years. When I was little, I swam in the warm currents of the Pacific. All I had to worry about was growing up, eating jellies, and enjoying the sun. But now that I’m an adult, life is harder.

I feel so weightless while I’m swimming, but as I crawl up the beach, I realize how much weight I’ve put on in the last four years since I nested. I finally reach a spot high above the reach of the surf, clearing dry sand with my front flippers and then digging my nest chamber using my rear flippers. I’m ready. It’s time for eggs. I feel them slip from my body into the nest cavity and hope that they will be safe in the sixty days it will take for them to incubate in the warm Mexican sun. This season, I was able to mate twice. I take comfort knowing that the hatchlings in my eight nests will carry the genes of two males forward, hopefully increasing their chances of survival.

I swam steadily for months to reach this beautiful beach. I met tunas and albatross - I saw giant orcas that I managed to avoid. Huge fishing trawlers passed by me, but still I swam on. Almost no one sees me  in a rough ocean where I constantly swim and dive. I’m not fast - I can swim about four miles an hour, but I am steady. This is what us leatherbacks have been doing for millennia.

I was caught once on a longline hook. I was in a jellyfish swarm and was eagerly eating my fill. My flipper became entangled and I felt the hook sink into my shoulder. I swam against it, but the line was very strong. Eventually the fishermen on the boat were able to cut me free.  I am hopeful that fishermen will find a safer way to fish that will not catch as many sea turtles.

Some nights when I’m on the beach, I have people come to see me. I have a tag they put on my flipper that identifies me. Each time they see me nesting, the people seem to celebrate. In recent years, I’ve seen fewer of my sisters coming to nest, and it worries me. This year however, I’ve seen many of the ones I haven’t seen in years and years. I’m hopeful that the rest are still out there, swimming. Maybe even nesting again on the beaches that they used to call home.

Learn More:

Video: Species in the Spotlight - Pacific Leatherback