By Chloe Winter
A rare 2.3 metre-long turtle that washed ashore in Marlborough's Pelorus Sound may be left to rot if transport cannot be arranged.
Department of Conservation Top of the South acting conservation services director Roy Grose said he was unable to organise a specialised boat to pick up the leatherback turtle from Te Kopi Bay because of stormy weather and the long weekend.
However, if a boat could transport the turtle back to Havelock, Massey University could then organise transport to Palmerston North, where it would be frozen before undergoing a necropsy, or animal autopsy.
"There is no guarantee we will pick it up," Grose said. "I am just waiting for a call back from Massey to see if they have worked out something their end, but at this stage we are just trying to determine if we can pick it up ... it's quite the challenge."
"If we don't we will tow it to an isolated beach and let nature take its course."
The leatherback turtle was spotted by Te Kopi Bay resident Mark Pengelly from his boat on Saturday.
At first glance Pengelly thought it was a mussel buoy.
"As I approached it on the boat I saw that it was some sort of sea creature. Then when I got close enough I saw it was a giant turtle.
"It's a shame it is dead because it's quite a big creature."
Leatherbacks are endangered species, the largest sea turtles and one of the world's largest reptiles. Adult leatherbacks can weigh between 360 kilograms to 450kg, although some have been reported as large as 900kg.
They get their name because, instead of a shell, their backs are covered with a leathery, oily tissue.
Pengelly, who had been living "on and off" in Te Kopi Bay for the past 10 years, said he had never seen one in the bay before.
"I've never seen something this big. We've had dolphin wash up before and we get orca come into the area reasonably often, but nothing like this."
After contacting DOC, Pengelly pulled it ashore to keep it safe until it was picked up, he said.
Grose hoped they could pick it up and send it to Massey University, but if they could not organise transport they would just take measurements and vital statistics, he said.
Grose said he was unsure of the population of leatherback turtles in the Marlborough Sounds, but it was quite rare to see one.
"It's highly unlikely to see them because they tend to be in warmer water. It's pretty rare to see them this far south."
The last leatherback to wash ashore in Marlborough was 10 years ago in Tory Channel, he said.
"That one was in a pretty decayed state.
"We didn't go and pick that one up because it was too far decayed by the time it was reported. This one is bigger and it's fresher."
Grose guessed it could have come into the Sounds in the Cook Strait current. He estimated it had been dead for about four days.
"We don't really know how it died yet, but sometimes it can be from boat strike, sometimes they die from old age and sometimes they die from marine pollution because they swallow clear plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish and it blocks up their internal systems and they die from starvation."
Leatherbacks 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 travel as far north as Canada and Norway and as far south as New Zealand and South America.
They are designated as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act and the Pacific population is declining at an alarming rate.
Scientists around the world are tracking and studying leatherbacks to learn more about these reptilian giants and how they can be saved.