The research to better understand and conserve the creatures has revealed that the turtles are not just a tropical species but ones that migrate up to 12,000 kilometres from nesting grounds in the Caribbean to waters off the Cape Breton to feast on jellyfish.
The work of biologist Mike James and others will be documented in a Jan. 30 episode of the Nature of Things on CBC. The one-hour documentary catches up with James in Neil's Harbour as he conducts his annual research on feeding habits and then his trip to Trinidad to meet with research colleagues as thousands of leatherbacks lay their eggs on sandy beaches.
"What we learned early on was that was surprising is that they are seasonal residents," said James, a Halifax resident, when asked of the importance of finding sea turtles off Cape Breton.
"There was a thought that if you see a turtle it was on its way somewhere else and sort of accidentally wandered here."
James said the discovery was made after scientific tools including satellite tracking tags were attached to the turtles that uncovered localized hot spots and critical habitat waters off Cape Breton.
Though the exact number of turtles coming to Cape Breton is still not known the discoveries have meant a better understanding of the relationship between turtles and their habitat as well as the key components of that habitat. Discovering that turtles return to Cape Breton each year is also significant because it means long-term monitoring is possible.
"It's highly significant for the whole Northwest Atlantic leatherback population and I hope that's is something the film captures," he said.
"These turtles are coming from Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia — small nesting colonies sprinkled throughout the Caribbean. For all these turtles, (Cape Breton) is a common foraging destination from all those colonies in the summer."
Filming for the documentary began in November 2012. Cape Breton portions were captured in August 2013 featuring James working with local fisherman and chronicled as they have been performing the work the past 17 years.
"It was really fortuitous when I lucked on Neil's Harbour and it was quite by chance. I hope that part of it is captured in the film."
Back in the late-90s when he was searching for people to help him in his first year of research he placed posters in different areas.
A fisherman from New Haven called him after noticing one of those posters and told him he should do the work near Neil's Harbour because there are plenty of turtles in the area and people who would help him.
That first year, in collaboration with local fisherman, he said they pulled off the seemingly impossible task of capturing a leatherback and attaching a satellite tag — something that had never been done before.
He returns each August for work that sometimes stretches into September.
"We thought as a group we should try some more stuff the next year and it has kind of grown from that."
First of its kind camera footage from the turtle's perspective was also captured with the help of the fishermen he refers to as his main logistical partners.
He continues to be thankful to the dedicated group who "put up with him" as well as conservations organizers like the Canadian Sea Turtle Network that support the research.
"The story involves so many people working in so many areas because these animals have such a geographical range that within a year they can occur in so many countries and be encountered by multiple people," he said.
"I'm excited for the communities that have invested in the work to see it profiled in this way."
Following the broadcast, the film can be watched on the CBC website at: http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/ and can be followed on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/TrekOfTheTitans.