Land & Conservation

Fishermen Save Trapped Leatherback Turtle

Anglers capture incredible photos of the massive animal off the coast of South Carolina

photo: Josh Dickerson

A leatherback turtle 50 miles out from Charleston.

A group of boaters got a big—likely a thousand pound—surprise last week when they spotted and freed a trapped leatherback sea turtle fifty miles off the coast of Charleston.

Seven friends were trolling the waters of the Gulf Stream last Thursday afternoon when they spotted something floating. “We noticed a buoy off in the distance and could see just the top of a big shell next to it,” says Josh Dickerson, who was running the boat. “It was so still as we approached, we thought it was a dead turtle.” They saw the animal had rope wrapped around its flippers and neck. And then they saw it move—this sea turtle was very much alive.

That’s when the friends realized it was a leatherback, the largest species of sea turtle. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources recently noted that the endangered gentle giants, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, have been showing up in Carolina waters this spring to follow food such as cannonball jellyfish.

The more than six-foot-long turtle had become entangled in the rope from a crab pot. The rope wrapped under both its front flippers and around its head. At first, it bolted, only to resurface 50 yards away. So the boaters scrambled to pull in their lines and backed the boat up alongside. “It’s mayhem to get all the lines in, and there are hooks everywhere,” says Allan Narowski, another fisherman there that day, “but right then we all collectively agreed we would try to help this turtle.”

photo: Josh Dickerson

Fishermen stabilize the turtle.

As Dickerson edged the boat closer, Narowski gently used a gaff to grab the animal between a flipper and its shell. “I was probably the closest to it as I held it there,” Narowski says. “It’s normal to see a loggerhead, but this leatherback was insanely majestic. It turned its head and opened its mouth, like it was taking a deep breath.”

The turtle started thrashing its three-foot-long limbs while two other fishermen began trying to untangle and cut the rope. Matt Woodford grabbed a fillet knife and sawed off the cord from the crab pot, and then cut the rope that entangled the turtle’s flippers and neck.

And then, just as soon as it was free, the turtle skimmed off. “There was one piece of rope they couldn’t get off that was caught in the front right flipper,” Dickerson says. “But she swam off strong, and it looked like it would come free soon on its own.”

Narowski added that a slow day of fishing turned into an exciting one. “We were all high-fiving,” he says, “And although the fishing karma didn’t come in the form of more fish that day, we think it might be delayed—hopefully when we’re back out there this weekend.”