Leatherback turtles are the largest living turtles in the world--an adult is six to seven feet long and the huge front flippers have a wingspan of almost nine feet. They are considered a critically endangered species and are not as common off the Central Florida coast as the loggerhead turtles we see all the time. I've seen them now and then in years past, but not all that often. Still, because I've seen them before, the fascination had faded for me. When I spot one, I'm more interested in what might be following in its wake, since cobia tend to follow them and I like to catch cobia!
We were about fifteen miles off Cape Canaveral fishing on a ledge known locally as 8A. There was no wind, the swell was less than a foot in height, and the surface was glassy calm--a typical summer morning. When we decided to move to a new fishing spot, I saw a turtle on the surface. Loggerheads are yellow and brown colored, but this turtle looked black and had a head the size of a basketball. I said, "Hey, Tim, there's a leatherback!" He was in the water as soon as the boat stopped and was able to film the turtle as it dove. Talk about an excited kid! He said, "I never thought I'd get to see a leatherback, and now I got to film one!" His enthusiasm renewed a sense of wonder for me.
Maybe they were migrating. Maybe the large number of jellyfish in the water had drawn them into the area to feed. Maybe God was smiling and enjoying Tim's delight, because we saw more than a dozen leatherbacks that morning. When the boat got close to them, they would dive. But the last one we approached stayed on the surface long enough for Tim to dive in and swim up under the turtle before it dove. He was almost close enough to touch it! William captured it on film with the go-pro. I stayed in the boat, so I couldn't see what they were seeing from under the surface. On the video, as Tim approached the turtle, a nice sized cobia swam up and a dozen remoras streamed from the back of the turtle as it dove. (You can watch the video below.)
When Tim climbed back in the boat, he said, "This is the best day I've had in probably a decade!" And even though I didn't get to catch that cobia that was following the last leatherback, I was glad I got to be part of that joy!