After months of egg-laying, Isla the leatherback sea turtle found herself off the coast of North Carolina with Florence bearing down.

Meghan Overdeep
October 4, 2018
Mint Images - Frans Lanting/Getty Images

Earlier this year, researchers tagged a leatherback sea turtle named Isla with hopes of tracking her as she nested along the Florida coast and then migrated north to feed. They never expected that, just a few months later, she’d find herself directly in the path of Hurricane Florence.

Florida Leatherbacks Inc. documented nearly every step of Isla’s instinctual journey on social media—including a staggering 11 nesting stops. But when she ended up just off the North Carolina Outer Banks in mid-September, the tweets chronicling Isla’s movements took on a more serious tone.

“We are tracking a leatherback sea turtle as Hurricane Florence approaches,” the non-profit organization explained in a tweet. “She appears to be responding to the much larger waves (~14ft) and has begun moving southeast into deeper water.”

On September 14, Florida Leatherbacks Inc. shared that Isla has stopped moving off the coast of Kitty Hawk. “Isla the #leatherback #seaturtle has stopped moving south and is now about 65 miles off Kitty Hawk North Carolina in 120 ft water,” they tweeted. “She will be experiencing high surf for the next 48 hours.”

Instead of making efforts to avoid the hurricane, researchers watched as Isla continued, undeterred, on her quest.

“Turtles are air breathers, so they need to come to the surface periodically to breathe, but I suspect many dive below the surface to weather the storms,” Kate Mansfield, director of the Marine Turtle Research Group at the University of Central Florida, explained to Popular Science. “I have tracked turtles through some storms in the past and never saw any sort of movement that suggested they were trying to get away from the storm (or that the storms shifted their paths).”

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Florida Leatherbacks researcher, Kelly Martin, told IFL Science that much like the wild horses of the barrier islands, sea turtles like Isla are accustomed to severe weather. “Sea turtles evolved with hurricanes so for the most part, they are designed to handle the effects of weather,” she said.  

A few days later, Isla was safe and sound off the coast of Virginia. Today, she showed up in New Jersey, putting 5,000 miles and a historic hurricane between her and her last nest on Jupiter Island, Florida.

Leatherbacks are the largest turtles on Earth and can grow up to seven feet and weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. The species is currently listed as "vulnerable,” which is only one step above "endangered." According to the World Wildlife Fund, they are at currently at risk due to a myriad of factors including habitat loss, over-harvesting, and climate change.

“They’re big rubbery dinosaurs and they nest on the beaches that we live on,” Martin’s colleague, Chris Johnson, told Popular Science. “They’re just the coolest animals.”