|Leatherback wearing a satellite tracker.|
When it came to doing his graduate studies, he was determined to study turtles. Freshwater turtles, he thought, until the university’s veterinarian suggested leatherback turtles, an endangered species that had been spotted occasionally in Atlantic Canadian waters.
Dr. James wasn’t sure. Conventional wisdom said the turtles, which grow to the size of a double bed and tip the scales at 650 kilograms, were a tropical species. Any leatherbacks seen around here were likely strays pulled off course. So he decided to talk to the people who were bound to know more – fishermen.
Why hadn’t anyone asked the fishermen before? When Dr. James started researching the giant reptiles in earnest, he enlisted their help. During that first summer in 1998, fishermen reported 171 leatherback turtle sightings – quite enough to confirm that the population was indeed established here and warranted further study. “Every time I see a leatherback, I get excited,” says Dr. James. “They’re just so cool. And I never get over the size of them – they’re huge!”
Dr. James, who is now part of a research team at Dal led by Ransom Myers (MA’80, PhD’83), is also the founder of the Halifax-based Canadian Sea Turtle Network. The framed pale-yellow turtle poster that used to hang in his bedroom as a boy is now over his desk in his tiny office in the Life Sciences building.
He does most of his fieldwork by hitching rides with commercial sea crab and lobster fishermen. Few people in the world study male leatherbacks at sea because it’s so difficult to do. Once he spots one – an art form in itself – he hauls it aboard, measures it, photographs it, takes tissue samples for DNA testing, injects a glass-encased identification microchip in the shoulder and attaches a tag on a rear flipper.
Once he established the turtles were here, the next step was to find out where else they went. He set about capturing about 25 turtles and outfitting them with satellite transmitters. Looking like cute little backpacks that were strapped over the turtles’ front flippers, the units captured all kinds of information: where they travel, how deep they dive, how long they swim at the surface, even water temperature. Plotted on a map, the data show the leatherbacks migrate extensively, from tropical to temperate waters.
While Dr. James takes care of the science at sea, his wife, Kathleen Martin, looks after other aspects of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network. She’s as crazy about leatherbacks – “those charismatic mega fauna” – as her husband. “This is an incredible species that has remained virtually unchanged since it first began swimming in the world’s oceans more than 90-million years ago. And we know very little about it.”
— Marilyn Smulders