BAR HARBOR, Maine — It has been a busy week for a local group that keeps track of dead sea animals.
On Monday, Allied Whale conducted a necropsy of a 50-ton sperm whale on a beach in the village of Hulls Cove. On Thursday, it recovered a dead leatherback turtle that, like the whale, was spotted by fisherman floating off Schoodic Point, on the eastern side of Frenchman Bay across from Mount Desert Island.
The whale was found Aug. 14. The turtle was found Wednesday in the water by a fisherman from the Gouldsboro village of Bunkers Harbor, according to Rosemary Seton, marine mammal stranding coordinator for Allied Whale. The group, which is closely affiliated with and operates out of offices at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, is permitted by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to approach and handle endangered and protected marine mammals and sea turtles.
On Thursday, COA staff went to Bunkers Harbor to get the turtle, which is five feet, eight inches long but was not quite fully grown, Seton said. She said there are no obvious signs of trauma to the turtle, which had not decomposed much when it was found.
Seton said it is not clear whether the reptile is the same leatherback turtle that was disentangled from fishing gear off MDI on Aug. 8. That turtle, also estimated to be five feet long, was freed by Coast Guard personnel after they stopped a lobster boat for inspection near Great Duck Island and then saw the animal entangled in a lobster buoy rope a short distance away.
Seton said leatherback turtles can be identified by distinct markings on their heads but that there were no decent photos of the leatherback turtle that the Coast Guard rescued. Seton said Allied Whale and NOAA are supposed to be notified quickly about any marine mammal and sea turtle entanglements or strandings in the area but that they found out from news reports about the entangled turtle freed by the Coast Guard. Had Allied Whale been contacted at the time, she said, researchers either would have responded or asked the Coast Guard to get better identifying photos of the turtle.
Seton said leatherback turtles are listed as endangered. Sea turtle sightings are not common in the Gulf of Maine, she said. Some species such as green or loggerhead turtles tend to favor warmer waters.
“We don’t have to deal with so many up here,” Seton said. “We do get the odd leatherback.”
According to information posted online by NOAA, leatherback turtles can grow to more than six feet long and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated that, according to recent estimates, there could be between 34,000 and 94,000 adult leatherback turtles in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Seton said she has responded to turtle strandings and entanglements in the area before, but that this animal is the only turtle Allied Whale has dealt with directly this summer.
The turtle was found just as Allied Whale was trying to wrap up the initial phase of a sperm whale necropsy project, according to Seton. Though the whale was dissected on Monday, getting all the various parts sorted out and situated has taken several days. The whale’s skeleton now has been buried in a compost pile — the location of which is not being disclosed — in order to clean it, she said.
Officials with Allied Whale and COA have said they hope to have the skeleton reassembled and put on display in a new building for the Bar Harbor Whale Museum, which currently does not have a home. COA owns the museum collection.
The whale’s other fleshy parts, which are expected to decompose entirely, are being composted at a different undisclosed location, officials have said.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.