Hell-bent for leather is how Dick Landon described the departure of a very large turtle.  

That saying comes from a mash-up of two idioms. Hell-bent means with fierce determination, and originated with the Brits during the first half of the 1800s. The other saying, hell for leather, alludes to riding atop a leather saddle on a fast-moving horse and is the American bastardization, circa 1889, of the aforementioned quote.   

The hell-bent for leatherback turtle was observed by Dick in the shallows of an incoming tide outside of West Basin. He watched it for about 20 minutes, after which, with great effort, it powered its way off the sand and back into the waters, heading toward Menemsha Pond.  

It was a biggie, with Dick noting that it was close to six feet in length and maybe 500 to 800 pounds. He shared that “it was one of more remarkable sights I’ve seen out of doors.”  

Seeing a leatherback is remarkable, and Dick wasn’t the only one to experience it recently. Soon after Dick’s report, I heard from Betsy Shay, who saw her own remarkable sight times two! In a boat with Jonathan Mayhew on Quitsa Pond, Betsy observed both a leatherback sea turtle and an ocean sunfish and has the photos and videos to prove it.  

Alas, the ocean sunfish is a story for another time.  

Leatherbacks and other sea turtles should have our attention this time of year. As the waters get colder, strandings and cold stuns become a possibility and, in some cases, the off-season beachgoer might be a vulnerable animal’s best hope for survival.  

Sea turtles are highly migratory, with the leatherback being an exceptionally long-distance traveler. Leatherbacks can swim more than 10,000 miles per year and a one-way journey from their southern breeding grounds to their northern feeding grounds can cover 3,700 miles.    

They come for the food. Leatherback sea turtles prefer soft-bodied prey, such as jellyfish, salps, tunicates and other salty gelatinous specialties that are plentiful in our waters. Their jaws are distinctly different from the other sea turtles that eat harder prey and macerate food with crushing oral force. Leatherbacks have sharp toothlike spikes, called papillae, in their mouth and throat. The backward-facing papillae keep those jellies down and prohibit them from slipping up and away.  

Fall is travel time and leatherbacks are going south. It is not uncommon to see them at this time of year and turtle-ologists, sometimes referred to as herpetologists, cheloniologists, or testudinologists, want to know if you see one. In our area, you can log your sightings of live and healthy animals at seaturtlesightings.org or by phone at 888.sea.turt. 

Also wanted are other sea turtle sightings, so no matter what the species, please report it, especially if they might be in trouble. It is also stranding season, a time when sea turtles come up on the beaches and may need help.  

Leatherbacks are somewhat able to regulate their body temperatures and don’t cold-stun as other sea turtles do. The other species — including green, Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead turtles — are not so lucky and will become cold-stunned as they cannot regulate their body temperatures. They occasionally get stuck on Cape and Islands beaches. 

For these types of situations, call Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary at 508-349-2615 extension 6104, as they can direct aid efforts and send assistance, when possible. 

Thanks to Dick and Betsy for their observations, and a good reminder for everyone to be on the lookout for these terrific turtles. Off-season is when we often get these most-interesting guests passing through. Sometimes they need a little extra hospitality!

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.