Nova Scotia

Leatherback replica provides chance to see 'enigmatic' turtle up close

A fibreglass replica of a massive leatherback sea turtle now hangs from the ceiling of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth. Every detail has been painstakingly copied, even down to the marks left by the tangled fishing gear that led to her death off northern Cape Breton last summer.

'Every wrinkle and spot on that turtle is true to the original animal,' says marine biologist

Marine biologist Mike James of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography says the biggest threat to leatherback turtles is getting tangled up in fishing gear. (CBC)

A fibreglass replica of a massive leatherback sea turtle now hangs from the ceiling of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth.

Every detail has been painstakingly copied, even down to the marks left by the tangled fishing gear that led to her death off northern Cape Breton last summer. 

For marine turtle biologist Mike James, it was an opportunity to turn the loss of a endangered leatherback — the world's largest reptile — into an educational tool for visitors 

"That particular animal ended up being cast and this fibreglass mould is painted and every wrinkle and spot on that turtle is true to the original animal," James said Wednesday in an interview. "So that was pretty exciting."

Massive turtles rarely spotted

Leatherbacks travel up to 12,000 kilometres from nesting grounds in the tropics to waters off Nova Scotia each year to feast on jellyfish.

While they arrive by the hundreds, few people actually get the chance to see one in nature.

A fibreglass replica of a massive leatherback sea turtle hangs from the ceiling of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth. (CBC)

"These animals are huge, I mean you are dealing with typical masses of 350 kilograms to 600 kilograms for individuals in our waters. So for a big animal, they are somewhat enigmatic and very difficult to find in the open ocean unless you are out in the right areas and at the right time of year," he said. 

"Most Nova Scotians hopefully have some sensitivity and awareness to the fact that we have these endangered species in our waters, but chances are most people won't get to see them out on the seascape."

Fishing gear biggest threat

James said the biggest risk the leatherbacks face is getting caught up in gear from fishing boats.

"There's a lot of threats to the turtles in the nesting beaches as well that affect the hatchlings and the eggs, and to a certain extent the adults in some areas, but the hazards at sea principally involve entanglement or interaction with fisheries, " he said.  

The underside of the leatherback turtle replica hanging at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. (CBC)

This particular turtle had been wearing tags applied in Trinidad so they were able to get the animal's full nesting history from a group called Nature Seekers.

That grassroots organization's primary mandate is to preserve the turtles on their nesting grounds at Matura beach. Here in Canada, scientists are doing research through live capturing and tagging turtles at sea.

Earlier this month, the Nature Seekers and Trinidad's agriculture minister honoured James with an award for his work with the leatherbacks. 

"We have this really nice link to Trinidad," James said.

"Both in the fact that the same animals that occur in our waters nest in the beach there and we have a regular exchange of information between the two countries, as well." 

About the Author

After spending more than a decade as a reporter covering the Nova Scotia legislature, Amy Smith joined CBC News in 2009 as host for CBC Nova Scotia News as well as Atlantic Tonight at 11. She can be reached at amy.smith@cbc.ca or on Twitter @amysmithcbc