Despite being a beautiful, sunny early August day, grief overcame Sandy Hook Bay on a Saturday afternoon, Aug. 12.
A dead Loggerhead sea turtle was discovered by several local residents on an out-of-the-way beach in the Borough of Keansburg, not far from the Port Monmouth border.
Local police notified staff at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center of the dead turtle.The Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a private, non-profit located in Brigantine, New Jersey, is the only organization authorized from state and federal governments to handle not only stranded marine mammals, but sea turtles that wash ashore on New Jersey beaches.
When volunteers with the stranding center arrived later in the day, they found the dead turtle located near the high tide debris line. The body was decomposing and its shell was battered. The poor thing had seen better days.
A small crowd had gathered around this majestic sea creature. Even in its decrepit state, the sea turtle was something to see. Everyone with eyes wide open and no one believing that sea turtles actually could be found in lower New York Bay.
In fact, quite a few different species of sea turtles call lower New York Bay home during the summer months. Sea turtles are pelagic animals known to make considerable migrations between foraging areas and nesting beaches.
In all likelihood, they come to New York Harbor to feed on a variety of food, such as crabs, fish, jellyfish, mollusks, and seaweed. Some of the more common species seen every summer by people include Kemps Ridleys, Greens, Leatherbacks, and, of course, Loggerheads, the most common sea turtle seen along coastal New Jersey and New York.
An assessment by stranding center staff determined the turtle was a juvenile Loggerhead. It had a characteristic large, block-like head, which supported powerful jaws that enabled it to feed on hard-shelled prey, such as whelks and crabs.
The carapace or top shell was about 24 inches long by 25 inches wide. It was slightly heart-shaped with several large snowy white barnacles on top — evidence that this sea turtle had been living in the open water for more than a few years. The plastron or bottom shell was a pale yellowish color. The sea creature weighed about 65 pounds.
It was determined that the young turtle most likely died from a wound on its shell after a collision with a boat propeller. A small number of its large lateral plates on one side appeared cracked and damaged. The wound almost certainly become infected and the young sea turtle soon died. Poor thing didn't have a chance after suffering a cracked carapace from a boat prop.
Unfortunately, this occurrence is happening more and more in lower New York Bay, including Sandy Hook Bay, every summer. There is so much boat traffic in the bay from large cargo ships to small speed boats that tiny, slow moving turtles have little opportunity to swim away quickly. Often sea turtles get hit as they come up out of the water for a breath of air. Then their dead, decomposing bodies wash up close to shore.
It's truly regrettable. Loggerheads are considered a threatened species in the United States and a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Recent population studies in the Southeast United States have concluded that the number of adult females is continuing to decline, in some cases up to 50 percent, in key nesting areas.
This dead juvenile Loggerhead was probably hatched from an egg somewhere along the coast of Florida. Although adult Loggerheads nest in April through September on Atlantic coast beaches of the U.S. from North Carolina to Texas, they prefer to nest in Florida.
Beaches in Florida account for about 90 percent of all Loggerhead nesting activity in the United States and nearly one third of the world's total population.
While no one is still quite sure where young sea turtles go after hatching out of their egg, it assumed that tiny Loggerheads live in rafts of sargassum seaweed or debris in open ocean currents of the Atlantic Ocean. As they get older, young Loggerheads will move to shallower coastal waters from Long Island southward to the Gulf of Mexico to forage for food and mature.
Sexual maturity is reached in 10-15 years, and the estimated maximum lifespan is 30 years. Adult Loggerheads average three feet in length and weigh 300 pounds.
Although lower New York Bay is a tough and stressful place for any animal to live, you can't help but wonder if this death could have somehow been avoided. Could boat owners somehow become more aware that unique and special life lives in lower New York Bay and we all need to do a better job of sharing these tidal waters with a diversity of life?
Before leaving, volunteers from the stranding center painted the shell and head of the dead young Loggerhead a bright red to indicate it had been tagged. In the morning, local public workers in Keansburg were to pick up the poor sea creature to dispose of the body. Not an attractive way to end the life of a magnificent, threatened sea turtle species that once called lower New York Bay home.
If you come across a marine mammal or a sea turtle that you think is sick, hurt or in danger, do not touch or attempt to help it. Please call the NJ Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538.
For more information, pictures, videos, and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/