Man Rescues Leatherback Sea Turtle Off Longport

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A view of the rescue from the Coast Guard helicopter.

By Tim Kelly

A leatherback sea turtle owes its life to a man whose fast action freed the reptile. The turtle’s head and neck were ensnared in fishing line during the incident which took place on Thursday.

Jeff Valentine, 50 years old, was working on a Towboat U.S. Shamrock Marine Towing vessel as it conducted a training exercise with a Coast Guard helicopter. The crews were in waters of the Great Egg Inlet, off Longport.

Valentine and the other crew members from his boat and members of the helicopter crew spotted the massive beast floating on the ocean surface in obvious distress.

“The turtle was stuck to a conch trap. The line was wrapped tightly around its head.”

Jeff Valentine straddled the reptile and used his utility knife to free the sea turtle.

The lined looped “at least five or six times,” around the turtle’s head, said Valentine, a resident of the Riviera section of town. “I’m a pretty good swimmer, so I thought I could jump in there and free him.”

The retired 25-year veteran of the Coast Guard and former “cutter swimmer” donned a life jacket and swam out to the turtle.

“There was no slack on the line and it was attached to the trap. The line went straight down to the (trap.)  There was nowhere the turtle could go. All he could do was lift his head. He was gasping for air.”

According to the National Geographic website, leatherback turtles are the largest turtles on the planet, eventually growing to seven feet in length and weighing more than 2,000 pounds.

The leatherback sea turtle was ensnared in fishing line and tethered to a conch trap off Longport.

In pictures taken from the Shamrock Towing boat, this particular animal appeared to be at least five feet in length, and Valentine estimated its weight to be in excess of 500 pounds.

Leatherback sea turtles are classified by National Geographic as “rapidly declining” in population, and were at one time found in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic. They are also among the oldest species in the world, with evolutionary roots tracing back more than 100 million years, according to the website.

As Valentine paddled toward the turtle, he approached from behind and straddled its shell. He took out his knife and was able to cut the multiple loops wrapped around the turtle’s head.

When the turtle was finally freed from the line, “he kicked me off” his back and Valentine felt its foot push off as “I kind of eased back as he began to swim away,” Jeff said.

Jeff Valentine displays the remnants of the conch trap after freeing the sea turtle.

“It felt awesome,” to free the turtle, Valentine said. “I’m glad I was there and glad I could do it.”  He was quick to credit the other members of the Shamrock Towing vessel crew, Bob Driscoll and David Pace.  He said Driscoll and Pace maneuvered the boat, a 41-ft. former Coast Guard utility boat now owned by the company, close enough for him to easily reach the trapped reptile.

“I’m not sure if most people would have done what we did. I’m pretty sure if we hadn’t been there he would have died within a half hour.”

The takeaway from the experience, he said, is that people need to be more careful when they dispose of seemingly innocent items that wind up killing marine life.

“Most of those congratulatory balloons that are released on the beach end up in the ocean. That stuff ends up killing marine life all the time. It’s not that hard. Cut the plastic six-pack holders, and watch how you dispose things that could end up in the ocean.  People need to learn to be more aware and more responsible for their actions.”

Although Valentine referred to the turtle as “he,” the actual gender was undetermined.

When asked if the crew members called the sea turtle by a name, Valentine laughed. “I would say his name should be Lucky S.O.B.”

Valentine displays the knife he used to free the trapped sea turtle.