Counting Sea Turtles in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off Olympic National Park

Erin LaCasella, a researcher with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center's Marine Turtle Ecology and Assessment Program, reviews data during a Twin Otter flight over the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA photos.

Counting sea turtles is no easy task when you're scanning the ocean looking for them, but that's just what the National Ocean Service's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the National Marine Fisheries Service did earlier this fall.

This is no small task when you realize that the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which includes 64 miles of Olympic National Park's coastline, covers 3,188.75 square miles (or 2,408.29 square nautical miles). To make the task of spotting leatherback turtles a bit easier, the spotters took to the air in a Twin Otter and crisscrossed the sanctuary.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the sanctuary's waters have been proposed to be designated as critical habitat for leatherbacks, which can grow to more than 6 feet in length and weigh 1,000 pounds. While leatherbacks "continue to thrive in Atlantic waters," according to NOAA, that's not the case in the Pacific.

"The population in the Pacific has declined dramatically over the last 20 years," said Scott Benson, the Fisheries Service's Principle Investigator for Pacific leatherback turtle ecology and assessment. "We're just beginning to learn some things about this animal even though it's been on the planet for 70 million years."

Mr. Benson says similar surveys will have to be conducted over a number of years to get a good idea how abundant leatherbacks are, or are not, where they're living, and how plentiful their jellyfish prey are.

According to NOAA, "the data collected during the West Coast survey will not only inform scientists about leatherbacks, but also help sanctuary scientists and managers monitor long-term trends and changes to other critical sanctuary resources."