The officers were out at sea in their boat when they spotted the dark object in the water. The shape was splashing around, and seemed to be in some distress. When they got closer, they realized it was a large animal, and it would die without their help.
The sea is home to a great many creatures, but not all of them are flourishing. In fact, some of them are vulnerable animals coming dangerously close to extinction. Pollution and hunting play a part in pushing them ever nearer to their downfall.
Turtles are particularly threatened by pollution because their primary prey is jellyfish. Degraded plastic bags in the ocean look uncannily like jellyfish, and turtles sometimes swallow them as a result. The bags block the turtle’s digestive system, and the consequences can be fatal.
Furthermore, fishing equipment can be dangerous to sea creatures they’re not intended for. One example is crab traps, which are unsurprisingly designed to catch crustaceans. Generally, these cages are left on the sea floor where floatation devices on the attached ropes mark their locations.
However, the cages don’t just catch crabs. If the traps somehow float away or fishermen abandon them, they can snare animals as large as whales. This is especially the case off both coasts of the U.S.A. Even watched traps might accidentally snag unsuspecting marine life.
That’s exactly what happened in Jacksonville, Florida, on February 23, 2016. Two members of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO), Officer Brad Smith and Lieutenant Steve Mullen, were patrolling at sea. JSO stated on its social media that the officers were two miles away from Hanna Park, a 1.5 mile beach in Jacksonville.
At roughly 1:00 p.m. the officers noticed an unusual dark shape out at sea. Whatever it was, the object appeared to be moving, so they sailed over to investigate. When Mullen and Smith got closer, they realized they had stumbled on a struggling prehistoric giant.
The officers had actually spotted a leatherback turtle, a species that traces back to the time of the dinosaurs. Unlike other turtles, which are renowned for their hard carapaces, leatherbacks get their name from their skin-covered shells. This particular one measured about nine feet in length.
The leatherback turtle has been classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Furthermore, several areas of the world have their own region-specific data for the leatherback. In some, the turtle populations are so low that they’re critically endangered.
The JSO officers were recording the event, which they described on their YouTube page later that day. “The sea turtle had become entangled in a crab trap,” they wrote. “The trap’s rope was looped around the sea turtle’s neck, and the buoy was still attached to the trap.”
That meant that the turtle was not only snared in the trap, but it couldn’t go underwater either. JSO wrote, “As a result, whenever the turtle tried to dive, the rope tightened around its neck.” By the time the officers reached it, the leatherback was suffering from its struggle.
One of them points out how exhausted the turtle is in the video. Without their help, it’s unlikely the turtle could free itself, so they decide to intervene. The footage shows Mullen lying on his stomach and reaching out to the leatherback from the boat.
An announcement in the background reveals that the rope is actually tied all the way around the turtle. “We found out that it’s wrapped around his belly, his fins and everything,” the speaker informs. Meanwhile, Mullen inspects the turtle to assess how to free it.
Despite its fatigue, the turtle still makes an effort to free itself. While Mullen holds the yellow buoy, the huge leatherback makes a last-ditch effort to twist in the water. It flails around and its head breaks the surface.
The leatherback is clearly in distress, but Mullen holds onto the rope tightly to prevent it from causing further harm to itself. Then he notices a piece of cord around the turtle’s neck that he can reach. In addition, Mullen has to be careful not to cut the flailing sea creature with his knife.
After some struggling, the lieutenant manages to sever the cord around the leatherback’s throat. Subsequently, it either realizes the human is trying to help, or it’s just too tired to thrash anymore. Either way, its stillness works to Mullen’s advantage.
He locates a second knot in the line tied around the leatherback’s fin. It’s far less challenging to cut this one though, and once it’s gone, the turtle is free. The liberated reptile slaps its fin against the water a single time as if in thanks, before it swims away.
The video has been well-received by animal lovers on social media. It’s not only been shared 21,000 times, but also has nearly two million views on Facebook alone. Grateful JSO followers also left heartwarming messages congratulating the officers on their great work.
One commenter wrote, “Thank you for saving this turtle, and other animals you have saved over the years. Animals are important as well as people, great job!” Another follower said, “I love stories like these, thank you for this positive, inspiring, motivational news, JSO!”
It would seem the officer’s actions have touched people across the world. The video even received comments from as far afield as Germany! Although leatherbacks are a threatened species, it’s good to know there are more out there – thanks to the JSO.