A Journey to Extinction
The disappearance of one of Earth’s ancient creatures
Story by Elena Edington
Photos courtesy of Ricardo Tapilatu
From a distance, the beach was everything Ricardo Tapilatu had expected it to be.
Golden sands stretched for miles, blending into a cerulean sea. Untouched forests rose from gentle mountains, the greenery framing a vast and isolated beach where the ancient Pacific leatherback sea turtles have nested for hundreds of years.
Since he was a teenager, Tapilatu, researcher and conservationist, had dreamed of visiting Jamursba Medi, a beach in the Bird’s Head region of Indonesia and the most critical nesting site for the Pacific leatherback turtle. Every few years, leatherbacks make one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom — a 6,000-mile journey from their feeding grounds off the shores of Washington, Oregon and California, back to the Indonesian beaches where they were born.
Stepping onto the shore for the first time, Tapilatu noticed the beach was pristine, and hummed with the sounds of colorful insects and wildlife.
The Pacific leatherback has been listed as one of Washington’s 31 endangered species since 1981 by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. It is also considered critically endangered — the highest threat classification before the “Extinct in the Wild” category on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
If the rapid rate of population decline continues, in 20 years the Pacific leatherback numbers could fall so low they could be difficult to recover, which could lead to extinction, Tapilatu says.
In 2004, Tapilatu and several groups partnered to begin a research study measuring the nesting population levels. The estimated annual number of nests at Jamursba Medi has declined 78.3 percent over the past 27 years, with a 5.5 percent annual rate of decline. In 1984, there were 14,522 nests, and in 2011 researchers counted only 1,596 nests, according to the study published in 2011.
Throughout the research process, Tapilatu walked the 11-mile beach under sweltering sun and during the darkest, moonless nights to count nests. He often found himself in the presence of nesting females, which can grow to be as large as a Volkswagen Beetle and weigh as much as 1,200 pounds. While nesting, it appears the turtles are crying, as salty tears stream from their eyes. However, this is only a process to rid their bodies of salt build-up.
“When I look them face-to-face, I feel sympathy for them,” Tapilatu says. “They are so vulnerable if we don’t do something.”
Across the ocean, Lekelia Jenkins, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, works determinedly on developing marine-conservation technologies.
Because of their journey through deep ocean waters, leatherbacks are prone to many dangers, such as long-line fishing, a common commercial fishing technique used by Washington fishermen and worldwide. Millions of hooks are placed on a line 30 to 50 miles long, often catching and drowning unintended prey.
The turtle excluder device is one invention that makes a difference, Jenkins says. Developed in the United States, the device is now used by fisheries to prevent unwanted creatures from becoming tangled in nets.
The leatherbacks’ future also depends on partnering with international neighbors who share a common goal of protecting them at every stage of their journey.
“Leatherbacks don’t belong to one specific people — they swim the entire Pacific Ocean,” Jenkins says. “It would be insufficient if we thought of it as just a Washington problem.”
In 2012, the U.S. government designated critical habitat of 41,914 square miles off the west coast under the Endangered Species Act. Teri Shore, program director at Turtle Island Restoration Network, a San Francisco based nonprofit, believes this was a major victory, but more needs to be done.
“To me the leatherback symbolizes the ancient nature of our world,” Shore says. “They have been coming to our shores for millions of years before us, and if they don’t go extinct they will be coming to our shores for millions of years after. Allowing them to disappear would be a tragedy.”
With awareness growing, Tapilatu hopes to see the Pacific leatherback population grow over the next 20 to 30 years, mirroring the improvement of the Atlantic and Caribbean leatherback population that have increased since conservation efforts began in the 1980s.
As the sun slips below the horizon and casts a glow across the sand, Tapilatu knows it will not be long before the hatching of a new nest begins. When the baby turtles scramble out of the nest and into the fading light, Tapilatu will be there to guide them safely into to the ocean. He will follow their trails, hoping one day to see them again, until they reach the water’s edge and the gentle waves pull their tiny bodies into the sea.