Leatherback Sea Turtles (in Mexico known as Tortuga Laúd) are not only the oldest and largest of all sea turtle species, but also the fastest moving and deepest diving.
These majestic and tranquil beauties are the last remaining representatives of a family of sea turtles evolving around 110 million years ago. Unlike the other 6 sea turtle species Leatherbacks don’t have a hard, bony shell, but a rather hydrodynamic appearance with a mosaic of small bones covered by a flexible, smooth, leathery skin.
Even though Leatherbacks are quite adaptable and therefore can be found in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic, numbers are alarmingly declining in many parts of the world. While the Atlantic population seems quite stable, numbers in the Pacific fell by over 90% in the past 20 years. These ancient open ocean nomads that only come ashore for nesting often fall victim to the harvest of their eggs and meat for human consumption, incidental capture in commercial fishing lines and nets as well as ingestion of floating plastic bags mistaken for their favorite food jellyfish.
Today only an estimated 34,000 to 36,000 nesting females are still around. Leatherback Sea Turtles are internationally considered as vulnerable in 2013 (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future) by the IUCN Red List and as endangered in Mexico and the US.
Nevertheless after 10 years of abstinence last year finally 3 female Leatherback Sea Turtles returned to Cancun’s beaches and laid their eggs. Let’s hope for more this year!
Leatherback Sea Turtle Facts
- Teardrop shape body with large front flippers
- Triangular shaped head without scales
- Thick, flexible, leathery skin (no hard shell); 7 ridges along the carapace (top shell)
- Dark bluish, grey to black with white spots
- Adults: length of 1.40 m (4.5 ft.) up to 2 m (6.50 ft.) with a weight of 300 kg (660 lbs.) to 800 kg (1800 lbs.)
- Hatchlings: length of approx. 5 cm (2 inches) with a weight of around 40 to 50 g (1.4 to 1.7 ounces)
- Wide range of global distribution
- Present in all open oceans except the Arctic and Antarctic
- Females nest on tropical and subtropical beaches
- Jellyfish and other soft-bodied organisms
- Continuously migrate through the ocean on their search for food
- Unknown, estimates range from 30 to 45 years, some up to 100 years
- Sexually mature at the age of approx. 15 years
- Reproduce every 2 to 4 years
- Lay 4 to 7 clutches of eggs per season
- Mating at sea
- Females come ashore to nest mostly at nighttime
- Excavating a hole in the sand and depositing 80 to 90 billiard sized eggs into the nest
- Disguising the nest with sand and returning to the sea
- Incubation period around 60 to 70 days
- After hatching baby turtles immediately head to the sea
- Nesting season in the Caribbean not exactly know (around June- July)
- Adult leatherback sea turtles have few natural predators, mostly killer whales
- Eggs and hatchlings fall victim to seabirds, crabs, predacious fish, dogs and other egg eating predators
Human induced threats include:
- Harvest of their eggs and meat for human consumption
- Incidental capture in commercial fishing lines and nets
- Ingestion of floating plastic debris, mainly plastic bags mistaken for their favorite food jellyfish blocking their digestive system
- Coastal development destroy nesting areas
- Leatherbacks can dive to depths of 1,200 meters (4,200 feet), deeper than any other turtle, and can stay down for up to 85 minutes – normal dive duration is between 3 to 8 minutes.
- Leatherback Sea Turtles are the fastest moving reptiles with speeds up to over 30 km/h (18 miles/h) – typically they swim at 2 to 10 km/h (1.2 to 6 miles/h).
- Leatherbacks can regulate their body temperature – the reason they are able to survive in cooler and temperate oceans.
- Leatherbacks undertake the longest migrations between breeding and feeding areas of any sea turtle, averaging 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) each way. The longest recorded leatherback migration was 13,000 miles.