THE HARLECH LEATHERBACK: A POORLY TOLD PARABLE

There are some stories that quite literally make you want to skulk off, bowed your head with collective guilt, and deny you’re part of the human race. This is such a story. It happened thirty-nine years ago a tragic sight confronted walkers on a beautiful Welsh beach within sight of the famous castle at Harlech. There, washed up dead on the strand was an awesome specimen of sea life – a huge Leatherback Turtle.
Turtles, born in the Caribbean, are known to migrate in large numbers to the Irish Sea where they feed in waters teeming with life off the Welsh coast. This on was special.  At nine feet long, weighing two thousand pounds and estimated to be one hundred years old it was the largest and oldest recorded member of its sea roving species ever found. It had apparently been tangled in fishing net and drowned but among the scientists involved in investigating its demise was my late brother Prof Gareth Rees, a stalwart of the Marine Conservation Society.

At the time Gareth told me he didn’t go for the drowning theory. The noble creature’s crop was stuffed with plastic bags of all shapes and sizes, which it had devoured. As they floated in the water column it had mistaken them for its favourite prey, jellyfish. He was sure the venerable giant was already in big trouble because of this ingestion and speculated this harvest of our waste must have contributed to its death. Why had it had become entangled in fishing net. Maybe it was losing condition or focus; perhaps its senses had been dulled by pain and discomfort. We’ll never know but the mere presence of our plastic in its crop shames us all.

Leatherback smUltimately its skeleton was consigned to the galleries of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff where it is on display alongside a model of the magnificent creature based on a mould taken of its huge shell. There it hangs suspended in mock turtle pretence of the life it once had; truly, truly, sad and shaming.

I remember when it was first displayed in the Museum they provided a recorded account of the story spoken by a Welsh actor. It evoked the Leatherback’s majesty, its long life, how it had shared the sea-lanes with the Cutty Sark, and how, in the end, it succumbed to man’s cluttering of the oceans. It was a very emotive and, I thought, fitting tribute to the giant Harlech Leatherback.

I make no pretence about it, because of my brother’s small part in the story, I feel very emotional about the Leatherback’s fate. I wanted to share its parable of pollution with Stephanie so last week we set off to view it; in my case for the first time in a couple of decades.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of the National Museum of my homeland but I was bitterly disappointed when we made our way to the marine section of the natural history gallery. The Harlech Leatherback was confined in a darkened cubicle with a couple of glaring, back lit, multi-coloured display panels outside giving general information about the threats and dangers faced by turtles. I searched hard for any reference at all to the one thing that matters and that’s the story of this individual victim of mankind’s folly. I found myself standing in the National Museum of Wales looking at the remains of an environmental tragedy, which had happened off our coast, with no reference to its Welsh connection at all. It was the school holiday and the gallery was full of parents and children who would not learn that this, the largest Leatherback Turtle, and the oldest, known to man had been washed up on Welsh shores. They were given no sense that the threats and dangers to turtle populations come right back to their own national doorstep. Why doesn’t the Museum shout out “This is the Harlech Leatherback and this is the damage we as a species can do!”

Apparently there is a recorded soundtrack with the exhibit but it wasn’t working and when I asked one of the Museum custodians he had no idea whether it referred to the Welsh connection. The soundtrack wasn’t working so I don’t know what it consists of but I would like to think it has that same mesmerising narrative, putting it firmly in a Welsh context, they used to have years ago. I doubt it but it would be nice. In the meantime I’ll spend time reflecting on follies that saw such marine majesty brought extinguished.