When Ron MacLean went for a walk along the shoreline, he had no idea that he was about to make an extraordinary find. Indeed, even after seeing the strange object in the ice, he didn’t understand quite what it was. But then MacLean got a closer look at the shape and realized that he’d made an astonishing discovery.
As a former chief engineer for the Canadian Coast Guard, Ron MacLean has a lot of maritime experience. In his retirement, though, the 64-year-old lives on the shores of Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia. And, as it happens, it was there that he spotted something that could be of real scientific import.
In the past, though, Nova Scotia’s geographical features have yielded a wide range of spectacular finds. As the province is surrounded by water, for instance, its cliffs are subject to constant erosion by the tides – and this process sometimes reveals fossils that have lain hidden for millions of years.
Many would say that Nova Scotia has some spectacular scenery, too. And on February 8, 2018, MacLean may have taken in his picturesque surroundings as he walked along the shore of Bras d’Or Lake. On his stroll, though, he also noticed a large dark shape.
And MacLean’s first impression of the object was that he was looking at a “small overturned boat.” This assumption wasn’t a strange one, either. After all, Nova Scotia is encircled by the sea, so such vessels are a common sight in the province.
The shape was unclear, though – and it was surrounded by ice to boot. Then, when he got nearer to investigate further, MacLean realized that the object in question wasn’t the debris of a vessel at all: it was a washed-up survivor from a prehistoric age.
In a February 2018 interview with CBC News, MacLean would explain what had happened next. “When I touched it, it was floating a bit, so it wasn’t moving, so I knew it was dead,” he said. “But it was in good condition.” This was no boat, for sure: instead, it was a dead animal.
MacLean continued, “It didn’t look like it was there that long, but that would be because [of] the ice and the cold and such.” It turned out, in fact, that the former engineer had come across a leatherback turtle. And partly because the species is endangered, this was a significant discovery.
According to Maclean’s – the Canadian current affairs magazine, which has no relation to Ron MacLean – leatherbacks are frequently referred to as “the dinosaur that survived.” That’s because the species has been around since the Cretaceous period, when tyrannosauruses walked the Earth. What’s more, the leatherback is the biggest type of turtle alive today.
In addition – unlike other sea turtle species – leatherbacks don’t have hard external casings; instead, they possess skin-covered shells. They also actively hunt lion’s mane jellyfish – and the turtles don’t seem to mind the ocean dwellers’ stinging tentacles, either.
However, the leatherback’s eating habits are part of the reason that the species is endangered. Plastic bags closely resemble jellyfish to the turtles; unfortunately, though, eating that trash can prove to be fatal to the animals. The turtles also face the threats of poachers and pollution.
But MacLean’s discovery wasn’t just important because of the turtle’s vulnerable status. For one – and despite sightings and rumors – there has never been a leatherback found in the vicinity of Bras d’Or Lake before. For this reason alone, the carcass was an important find – and MacLean may have been fully aware of this fact.
Perhaps with this in mind, McLean attempted to contact Fisheries and Oceans Canada to report the body. After several days of silence from the governmental department, though, MacLean emailed the Canadian Sea Turtle Network – and he suddenly began to receive a lot of attention as a result. “I got a call from pretty well everybody on Monday morning,” he told CBC News.
In his interview with the network, MacLean also noted that Fisheries and Oceans Canada was very interested in the leatherback carcass; the department even apparently wanted to keep it. But loading up the body of such a big reptile was easier said than done. Indeed, MacLean would need some serious muscle to haul the turtle out of the ice.
So, after lifting the body onto a wooden pallet, MacLean used a tractor to move the turtle. He subsequently assessed the leatherback and found that it was two yards long and a yard across. Eventually, though, the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative’s Laura Bourque would perform a full autopsy on the animal.
“[The turtle]’s a big one,” Bourque would explain to CBC News in February 2018. “Because it was emaciated, it didn’t weigh quite as much as expected – it weighed about 640 pounds. But its carapace, or its shell, was close to [two yards] in length, which is an adult-size carapace.”
And while the discovery of a leatherback in the lake initially caused experts some confusion, Maclean’s offered a theory as to what had happened. In particular, the publication speculated that the turtle had been hunting jellyfish and lost track of how far it had strayed. Then, as the animal had become lost, Maclean’s suggested, it couldn’t find enough food to eat and so had starved to death.
That theory would certainly explain why the underweight leatherback had turned up on the shores of Bras d’Or Lake. And although the death of an endangered animal is undoubtedly a tragedy, the turtle’s carcass could nevertheless provide a great deal of information about the leatherback species.
Mike James, a sea turtle specialist who works for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, explained further. “In this case, we have the full specimen right there up on the shoreline,” he told CBC News. Indeed, the body would hopefully answer some of the many questions that he and others had about the turtle.
“This is pretty exciting for us,” James continued. “Not only because the animal has now been collected, so we can study it further, but we can also hopefully get a good understanding of its body condition at the time that it died, which might tell us how long it might have been in the Bras d’Or Lake.” In this way, further investigation could reveal valuable insights into what had happened to the animal and how it had ended up in the condition that it had – not to mention what this event might mean for other members of its species.