Rare sea turtle found on SE beach

Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Kirt Marsh of Petersburg was walking along a rocky beach on southern Admiralty Island recently when he came upon a very odd "rock."

It was 3 feet long and 2 feet wide - huge compared to the other rocks on the beach. Then he saw a head.

"I looked at it and realized it was a turtle," said Marsh, a commercial fisherman who had never seen a sea turtle here in 20 years of plying Alaska waters. "I kicked it to see if it was alive."

The dead reptile was identified by the state Department of Fish and Game in Petersburg as a green turtle - a very unusual find in Alaska, said Mike Payne of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Green turtles are extremely rare," said Payne, chief of the Protected Resources and Habitat Conservation Division. "The most commonly found sea turtle is a leatherback turtle, and you only see those every couple of years."

People reported seeing four species of sea turtles in Alaska 34 times between 1960 and 1998, according to a paper published last year by scientists Bruce Wing and Robert Hodge.

In 20 instances, the turtles were identified as leatherbacks, a cold-tolerant species but uncommon in Alaska, the paper said.

Green turtles, a warm-water species, were reported nine times in 39 years - once as far north as Cordova. The Cordova turtle was captured alive in October 1996, "obviously cold stressed," and transported to Sea World Aquarium in California where it recovered, Wing and Hodge wrote.

A few other green turtles were observed alive as late as October, but probably they did not survive to return to warmer waters, the paper said.

The study noted that leatherbacks can maintain an elevated body temperature in frigid water and may respond favorably to Alaska, which is abundant with jellyfish, the species' favorite food. However, green turtles are a tropical or subtropical species that rarely strays into cold waters and gets stressed when sea temperatures reach about 50 degrees, the paper said.

Payne, of the fisheries service, said the doomed turtle probably followed a warm water current to Alaska in summer but ran into trouble as temperatures dropped.

"It's the right time of year for a stranding for a sea turtle," Payne said. "They extend their range as far as possible in summer with warmer water, then as the water cools down they strand or go into torpor."

Marsh figured the 150-pound turtle died shortly before he found it Nov. 9.

"There was a little bit of blood," Marsh said. "It looked like the seagulls had pecked its eyes out, so it was still pretty fresh."

Marsh loaded the turtle onto his boat and put it on ice. The green turtle, a threatened species, is at a cold storage plant in Petersburg waiting for the fisheries service to collect it.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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