You might think that the largest reptile on Earth would be pretty easy to spot. But St. Michael’s College grads Mike James 9T6 and Kathleen Martin 9T5 have spent the last decade discovering just how hard it can be to track the Atlantic ocean’s enormous leatherback sea turtles.
“We have so much knowledge as humans, and all this technology at our fingertips,” says Martin, “and yet, this species eludes us.
It’s not for lack of trying. James and Martin are the power couple that founded the Nova Scotia Leatherback Turtle Working Group (NSLTWG), a loose coalition of conservationists, marine scientists, and volunteers who have been diligently tracking and recording the movements of leatherback turtles in Canadian waters for ten years. The group’s work has become critical to understanding the biology and behaviour of these animals, and measuring their population in the Atlantic.
James, now an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University’s department of biology, says he “didn’t even know that sea turtles were part of the marine environment in Canada” when he arrived to do graduate work in biology at the University of Acadia in Wolfville, NS in 1998. A professor encouraged him to look into sea turtles, which, at the time, were not receiving much academic attention. James, a self-described “turtle freak,” jumped at the opportunity but without an extravagant research budget, his research method would require a little ingenuity.
Leatherback turtles are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It’s estimated that there remain fewer than 35,000 nesting female leatherbacks worldwide (females are slightly easier to count because they return to land to lay their eggs; male leatherbacks never return to land after hatching, making them extremely difficult to track). Reaching up to two metres in length, and sometimes tipping the scales at 650 kilos, leatherbacks in the Atlantic ocean migrate thousands of miles each season, from their winter nesting grounds in the Caribbean and Central and South America to their summer feeding grounds off the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador.
The appeal of the leatherback turtle, they explain, is just how wild and untamed the species remains. Leatherbacks have been swimming their lonely nomadic routes unchanged for roughly 90 million years, having lived with and outlasted the dinosaurs. “Leatherbacks are just incredibly huge,” says James. “Every time I see them, no matter how many I’ve seen, I’m always amazed by their size.” Part of James’s work involves capturing, tagging and releasing leatherbacks so that they can be tracked by satellite. It usually takes a team of people on the tagging platform to manoeuvre the huge animals. (Don’t try this at home; it’s a federal offence under Canada’s Species At Risk Act to kill, capture, or harass a leatherback turtle; James and his scientific team receive federal authorization for their tagging activities.)
Because the leatherbacks range over so much territory, tracking them is nearly impossible for the small group of researchers who study them. But James and Martin have used their advocacy work with NSLTWG to recruit hundreds of volunteer turtle-spotters who call in sightings of the shy animals. Most of these sightings come from fishermen working the coastal regions. “We really believe that if people are going to be stewards of their environment, it has to start at the grassroots level, it has to start with the people who are encountering these animals and are in a position to help them.”
NSLTWG has now collected more than 1,000 sightings of turtles from its network of volunteers, who number more than 500. During the summer months when the leatherbacks arrive in Atlantic Canada, the group’s turtle hotline (the toll-free number rings 24 hours a day in James and Martin’s Halifax home) receives dozens of tips from tour guide operators, recreational boaters, and fisher men. NSLTWG is able to operate with grants from government and private foundations, and individual charitable donations, meaning the group has to do a lot with its tiny budget. So when Martin refers to the fishermen and other volunteers who call in sightings as the group’s “research partners,” she means it the research would be almost impossible without the work of the volunteers.
Research into the turtles is only part of the puzzle community outreach and education is equally important, which is where Martin devotes much of her time.
“I had no background or interest in turtles until I met Mike,” says Martin. “I remember saying to him at one point, ‘What difference does it make if these turtles disappear? What do they do for humans?’ And he just looked at me it was one of those life changing moments and he said ‘it’s not all about us. It’s not all about humans in this world.'” Advocating for leatherback turtles has meant having that same conversation with thousands of Nova Scotians in the decade since, and Martin has led the community outreach activities of the group while James has headed up the scientific research. The two halves of the organization, they say, are interdependent.
Today, Martin is executive director of the working group, and handles its communication and education programs (she also works as a freelance writer and children’s book author). It hasn’t been the most predictable career arc: she studied English at the University of Toronto, and took a master’s degree at Queen’s. She was, James jokes, “not an outdoors person,” and she agrees. Martin was born in Northern Ontario and grew up outside Chicago, far from the ocean she now calls home and “surrounded by corn.” James was a city kid, born and bred in downtown Toronto. But he loved biology, attending a young naturalist camp during the summers and later working for Parks Canada. Although he majored in psychology during his undergrad years, James kept feeling pulled back toward biology and zoology, and took an extra year of courses in those fields before pursuing his graduate studies.
They met in their first-year English class at St. Mike’s in 1991, and married in 1998, the first summer they did field work on the leatherbacks. “I’ll never forget the week before our wedding,” says Martin, with a laugh. “Two days before we got married, my dad was in the basement of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, with Mike, laminating turtle posters. This is not the kind of thing you can do as a 9-to-5 job.”
The couple’s children Aidan, 5 and Kate, 3are now in on the act, having seen their first leatherback during an outing last summer. (The turtle hotline rang mere hours after Aidan’s birth in 2003 and Martin answered their son is no stranger to their conservation work.) “Last summer we had [the children] out and it was a beautiful night, and the sun was setting, and we came across two leatherbacks feeding pretty close to shore,” says James. “We said ‘Look honey, it’s a leatherback,'” says Martin. “It was a totally picture-perfect day, but my son was like, ‘yeah, Mom, did you bring any snacks?'”
Despite the serious decline of the leatherback population in the Atlantic ocean, NSLTWG’s research seems to indicate that there is hope for the future of the species. Based on James’s research, it appears that the number of turtles has stabilized, and could even be seeing a slight increase. But the factors that threaten them natural predators, entanglement in fishing nets, water pollution are still serious. That’s why James and Martin continue to research and advocate for the leatherbacks, even though it’s often difficult to coax the reclusive animals out of their shell, as it were.
The romance of the open ocean is part of the turtles’ enigmatic charm, but just as importantly, they have stubbornly resisted human attempts to understand them: no one has ever been able to raise a leatherback from hatchling to adult size in captivity. “They simply refuse,” says Martin. “As much as that doesn’t help in conservation, I think that’s so interesting that this species eludes us… we can’t figure out how to impose ourselves on it. There’s something really wonderful about nature having that upper hand, of still having its own world apart from our own.”