The endangered leatherback sea turtle has made its way to the California coast with sightings in the past few days near the San Francisco and Monterey bays, a marine biologist at a nonprofit sea turtle restoration group said.
At least 20 sightings have been reported thus far this summer offshore San Francisco in the Gulf of the Farallones, near Marin County, Pillar Point Harbor in San Mateo County and further south in the Monterey Bay, marine biologist at SeaTurtles.org Chris Pincetich said.
The leatherback watch program, which launched in 2010, is driven by more than 150 volunteers, who report sightings while whale watching, boating or participating in other ocean activities.
"It's an opportunistic program," Pincetich said. "The more we put into it the more we are likely to get out of it."
With more eyes scanning the ocean near Northern California, more sightings are noted. Last summer, 23 sightings were logged.
The leatherbacks this year have been spotted on the West Coast sooner than previous years, starting in mid-July, which is likely connected to the abundant bloom of jelly fish, Pincetich said.
Leatherbacks migrate to this part of the Pacific Ocean to eat the brown sea nettle jellies.
The sturdy animals, which survived the extinction of the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago, journey to this region as part of a two-year cycle traversing something near 13,000 miles from the waters around Indonesia and Papua New Guinea with a resting point in Hawaii.
The early arrival is slightly worrisome, as many large-scale fisheries will put protections in place later in August, the marine biologist said.
Drift gillnet fisheries along the state's coast use mile-long nets that target swordfish, but to protect the sea turtle they restrict their use to avoid catching the endangered species, as well, Pincetich said.
However, the more turtles that are spotted, the more data about the species nonprofit research groups like SeaTurtles.org accumulates, which hopes to protect the species into the future.
The group is working to name the leatherback as the state's official marine reptile. A bill proposing the naming is scheduled to make it onto the Senate floor later this week, Pincetich said.
Published at 6:36 AM PDT on Aug 8, 2012