An endangered leatherback turtle was saved after being speared by a swordfish, with the help of a Halifax-based sea turtle rescue group.

Kathleen Martin

Kathleen Martin, executive director and co-founder of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network, was in Trinidad last week. (Canadian Sea Turtle Network)

Kathleen Martin, executive director and co-founder of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network, was in Trinidad last week looking for leatherback turtles previously tagged in Canadian waters.

Martin and her group were attempting to attach a satellite tag to the animals to track their annual journey from their nesting grounds on Caribbean beaches to their summer feeding grounds off Atlantic Canada.

While Martin's group wasn’t able to locate Canadian-tagged animals, they did come upon a turtle in need of help.

"When we saw it, we were just — we could hardly speak. I mean it's an incredible thing to see … and the sword is very sharp and it's a couple of inches wide. It's not a small, narrow thing," she told CBC's Mainstreet.

Little blood but 'it smelled terribly'

What the group found was a leatherback that had been impaled by the bony "sword" of a swordfish, or possibly another billed fish such as a marlin. The 60-centimetre long sword has been sent away to be analyzed.

Martin said there was very little blood, but "you could see into this long cavity, into the turtle's body and it smelled terribly."

sword leatherback turtle

One of the Trinidadian volunteers, Nivon, holds the cleaned sword pulled from the turtle. (Canadian Sea Turtle Network)

"It went through the top of the turtle's shell and went out through the bottom of the shell on the side on a slant," she said.

Unlike other sea turtles, leatherbacks are the only turtles that don't have a hard upper shell. Instead their carapace is covered in a tough, leathery skin — giving the creatures their name. 

Martin said the sword must have been stuck in the turtle for quite some time as barnacles had attached themselves to it.

"It's amazing, their capacity to heal is astounding, really. What the turtle had done was it had encased the sword in, almost like a sleeve of skin, of tissue," said Martin. 

Martin said Dr. Scott Eckert, who is the scientific director for a Trinidadian sea turtle group and was on the beach last week, had seen something like this only once before in his career.

"What he knew right away was that we could pull the sword out of the turtle," she said.

When leatherback turtles haul their hulking frames onto a beach to lay their eggs, they go into a trance-like state, said Martin.

She said that made the rescuers' job easier, because it was as if the sea turtle didn't even know they were there.

Martin said Eckert used a multi-tool to grip the bony spear and pulled it out, with little effect on the egg-laying behemoth.

Eckert told Martin it was very unlikely the fish whose sword had broken off would have survived the ordeal.

Virtually unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs, leatherback turtles often grow to be more than two metres in length and can weigh more than 800 kilograms.

'Chance to touch a dinosaur'

Martin said being next to the enormous creatures is awe inspiring.

"You really feel like you're being blessed by the primeval, you know, this is an animal who has been around for 150 million years — since the T. rex was on Earth, leatherbacks have been with us — it's such a privilege to see that and have that sense of being tied into a world that is so much older than you are, and so much bigger, and just more mysterious," she said.

Martin said she's been known to "pat them and kiss them before they leave, wish them good luck — all those unscientific things" before they go back into the water.

"Of course, reptiles aren't affectionate, the way a dog is, for example. So none of that registers for the turtle. Just for me," she added.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada lists leatherback turtles as endangered. The species is particularly vulnerable to being caught as bycatch, as it is prone to entanglement in longline and fixed fishing gear.