Straying turtles end up dead in the water

Posted: Monday, January 17, 2000

Sea turtles usually live in warm waters off the coast of Mexico and Hawaii. Apparently that's where they should stay too, but they don't always.

Chris and Chuck McGraw of Sitka found a sea turtle near Kelp Bay on the east side of Baranof Island last month. Or rather, what was left of a sea turtle.

The corpse was about 30 inches long and weighed about 130 pounds, said Bruce Wing, a fisheries biologist who tracks sea turtles found in Alaska.

``It was big enough that it just barely fit in (biologist) Jan (Straley's) freezer,'' said Wing, who works for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

About once a year a turtle is found in Alaska, usually dead. They swim up in pockets of warm water, going at a turtle's slow speed, then are killed when the temperatures drop, Wing said.

``If it started out from the coast of Mexico, it probably took a couple of months to get up here,'' Wing said.

Wing knows of only one turtle that made it out of Alaska alive. It was found by hunters in Cordova in October 1996 and shipped to San Diego for rehabilitation. When it was released it headed north again, getting about 600 miles off the coast of northern California before the radio signal died out, Wing said.

The turtle found in Kelp Bay appeared to be a green sea turtle, a species which is common in South America and southern North America, Wing said.

``A lot of our residents see them when they go to Hawaii,'' he said.

Residents in Port Alexander first spotted the green sea turtle in November.

Turtles have been found all the way up in Kachemak Bay, and the Russians once found a leatherback turtle carcass in the northwestern Bering Sea. Leatherbacks can tolerate cooler temperatures than the green sea turtles, which like water warmer than 60 degrees.

``When it starts getting down to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, they're in trouble and anything below 50 degrees is usually lethal to them,'' Wing said. The water temperature in Southeast Alaska ranges from about 65 degrees in the summer to 40 degrees in the winter.

Wing is publishing a scientific paper with Robert Hodge in the spring issue of Journal of Herpetological Review on ``Occurrences of Marine Turtles in Alaskan Waters: 1960 to 1998,'' but the turtle found in Kelp Bay missed the deadline.

``This one didn't get up here early enough to get into the manuscript,'' Wing said.

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