By Angela Cuming
New Zealand — A spot of fishing on the Coromandel may have turned up the wildlife discovery of the year after what is thought to be a critically endangered leatherback giant sea turtle was spotted at Whangamata.
Shannon Rolfe and partner Aaron Radford came across the two-metre long turtle last weekend while taking part in a fishing tournament.
''We were out on my dad's 42-foot boat, out by the Alderman Islands, and my dad was looking out onto the water and starting yelling out that he'd seen a whale,'' Miss Rolfe says.
''There was this animal in the water, we could see a white belly, and then he rolled over and we saw that he was a turtle,'' she says.
''He was at least two metres long and would have weighed about 700 kilograms.''
Leatherbacks are the largest of all turtles, have white bellies and fully grown weigh up to 900kg.
''He kept bobbing his head up to have a look at us, he wasn't scared and was quite interested in us,'' Miss Rolfe says.
''He even swam under the boat a couple of times.''
Miss Rolfe says she is almost certain what she saw was a Leatherback, but hoped to have a marine expert verify the species.
''My dad has been a fisherman all his life and says he has seen sharks and whales and marlin up that way but never a turtle,'' she says.
''If it was a leatherback we feel extremely privileged.''
Although rare, it would not be impossible to have one turn up in New Zealand waters.
National Geographic says leatherbacks have the widest global distribution of all reptile species, and possibly of any vertebrate.
They can be found in the tropic and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. Adult leatherbacks also traverse as far north as Canada and Norway and as far south as New Zealand and South America.
Leatherbacks are currently designated as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The number of leatherbacks in the Atlantic appears to be stable or increasing, but the Pacific population is declining at an alarming rate due to egg harvest, fishery bycatch, coastal development, and highly variable food availability. Some Pacific populations have disappeared entirely from certain areas, such as Malaysia.
Scientists around the world are tracking and studying leatherbacks to learn more about these reptilian giants and how they can be saved.