Leatherbacks, the largest turtles in the world, paddle along in the sea for thousands of miles. But one unlucky reptile’s journey came to a halt Saturday morning when it got entangled in fishing gear off the New Jersey coast. Then the Coast Guard came to the rescue.
A passenger aboard a fishing boat caught sight of the troubled turtle 30 miles offshore and called the Coast Guard. A crew from the group’s Atlantic City station, along with a Marine Mammal Stranding Center representative, promptly arrived to untangle and free the 800-pound animal by hand.
“Everybody was excited,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Nick Giannaris said in a statement. “It was one of my better experiences being in the Coast Guard, just seeing the animal so close and helping marine life. Everyone was pretty energized about the whole experience.”
Leatherback sea turtles can weigh more than two tons and grow up to seven feet long. Found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, they can dive nearly 4,200 feet and can stay underwater for about an hour and a half. They surface on beaches to nest.
The giant reptiles have been around for more than 100 million years—they’re some of the oldest animals on the planet. But their population is quickly declining. According to National Geographic, just one of a thousand hatchlings grows into an adult.
Their eggs and meat are eaten in some parts of the world, and many drown in fishing nets or die after being hit by boats. Ghost fishing, in which derelict nets in the ocean continue to capture marine animals, poses a serious problem for the endangered species. The turtles can also mistake plastic trash for jellyfish, their favorite treat.
The latest threat? Climate change. According to a study published in Nature in April, higher temperatures are causing a gender gap in hatchlings. The warmer the sand where mother turtles bury their eggs, the more likely it is that female babies are produced. Sand that’s 87 degrees Fahrenheit will “almost exclusively produce female hatchlings,” one of the study’s authors told The Guardian.
It’s not looking good for the imperiled reptiles. But with rescue efforts like this and conservationists working to save the species, they may just survive.