Friday, August 1, 2014

MCAF-supported leatherback project gets its IMAX closeup

Leatherback hatchlings make their way to the ocean. Photo: Bird's Head Leatherback program

This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.   

Leatherback turtles are the largest of the living turtles, often reaching more than 7 feet in length and weighing 2,000 pounds. They are great distance athletes and keen navigators, traveling thousands of miles to foraging grounds and then returning to lay their eggs in the same region they were born. Sadly, fewer and fewer leatherbacks are returning to nesting beaches. Threats at sea such as bycatch in fishing gear and ingestion of plastic pollution, combined with dangers on land such as poaching and predation of eggs and coastal development, have put the turtle’s future in a tenuous position.

One of the most endangered populations is the western Pacific leatherback, which has experienced a 78 percent decline in the number of nests at two beaches in West Papua, Indonesia, that make up 75 percent of the total leatherback nesting in the western Pacific1. Ricardo Tapilatu, PhD, a sea turtle scientist from Indonesia, is working to protect these vital nesting grounds.

Tapilatu and his team at the Bird’s Head Leatherback Program, which has been supported in part by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund, work throughout the year to relocate or protect turtle nests from various threats such as erosion and flooding as well poachers and predators, including dogs and feral pigs. Some of the eggs are moved to higher ground while are others are taken to hatcheries to ensure their safety. These efforts, which help protect more than 100,000 turtle eggs every year, are vital in stemming the decline of this species.

Members of the Bird’s Head Leatherback staff appear in the IMAX film Journey to the South Pacific 3D. The film, which premiered at the Aquarium in November, 2013, explores the beauty and wonder of Papua’s diverse ocean wildlife through the eyes of a young boy and includes scenes of a giant leatherback laying her eggs while Tapilatu’s Bird’s Head Leatherback team watches over her.

Ricardo Tapilatu and his family joined MCAF Manager Elizabeth Stephenson to see Journey to the South Pacific at the Aquarium’s Simons IMAX Theatre. This was their first opportunity to see the film that features staff of the Bird’s Head Leatherback program in West Papua, Indonesia.

The Aquarium had the honor of hosting Dr. Tapilatu this past spring. During his visit he met with Aquarium staff and gave a presentation about his work. In addition, he and his family saw Journey to the South Pacific for the first time. Dr. Tapilatu was delighted to see his Bird's Head team and the leatherbacks they protect highlighted in this film, along with the many other natural wonders of his homeland.

Learn more about the Bird's Head Leatherback program online.

Journey to the South Pacific 3D is now showing at the Aquarium’s Simons IMAX Theatre

1Tapilatu, R. F., P. H. Dutton, M. Tiwari, T. Wibbels, H. V. Ferdinandus, W. G. Iwanggin, and B. H. Nugroho.2013. Long-term decline of the western Pacific leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea: a globally important sea turtlepopulation. Ecosphere 4(2):25.

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