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Leatherback Sea Turtle

Ocean Giants: Leatherback Sea Turtles Video
WCS scientist Howard Rosenbaum explains the fragile world of the ocean’s ancient mariners.
©WCS
Latherback Sea Turtle Photo
WCS recently announced the discovery the world’s largest nesting population of leatherback sea turtles in Gabon.
©Matthew Witt

The leatherback is the largest sea turtle in the world, measuring as much as 6.5 feet in length and weighing as much as 1190 pounds. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback does not have a hard shell, but rather a leathery carapace composed of a mosaic of small bones covered by firm, rubbery skin with seven longitudinal ridges and numerous white spots.

The most widely spread marine turtles, leatherbacks are found in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, particularly in tropical regions. They feed on jellyfish and other oceanic invertebrates. Leatherbacks are strong swimmers, and tagged individuals have been known to migrate thousands of miles across ocean basins. Like other sea turtles, they also travel great distances every two to three years to the beaches where they were born in order to reproduce in the coastal waters. Several times in one season, females come ashore at night to lay their eggs. Protecting the nesting beaches of leatherbacks is key to the survival of this endangered species, whose worldwide numbers have declined dramatically.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameDermochelys coriacea
  • Leatherbacks dive deeper than any other species of sea turtle. The deepest recorded dive is 3/4 of a mile, slightly more than the deepest known dive of a sperm whale.
  • Female sea turtles lay around 100 eggs in each nest. These eggs are not brittle like a chicken’s, but rather encased in a flexible, leathery shell.
  • Populations of leatherback sea turtles in the Indopacific crashed by more than 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s.

Challenges

Although sea turtles have survived on this planet for over 150 million years, the impacts of recent human activities have resulted in the classification of all seven species as either threatened or endangered. Destruction of their reef habitats, development of their nesting beaches, poaching of their eggs, and temperature change continue to cause the accelerated decline of sea turtle populations worldwide. At sea, turtles risk being caught up in the nets of commercial trawler fishing boats or being accidentally caught by local fishermen. While fishermen can release the turtles, many do not, and instead kill them and sell the meat in order to pay for the thread needed to repair the nets since large turtles like leatherbacks can cause substantial damage. Currently, sea turtles are faced with an additional challenge to their survival: an increased incidence of diseases and health-related problems in the wild.

WCS Responds

WCS is working to save sea turtle species around the world. Our work focuses on the protection of key habitats through research, training, education, and community outreach. WCS researchers have helped identify crucial feeding grounds, created protected areas around important nesting sites, and stemmed the decline of threatened populations. We work with communities near sea turtle habitats to reduce poaching, develop alternative livelihoods and protein sources, and create local management plans for sea turtle conservation.

Recently, an international team of scientists working in collaboration with WCS and our Gabon Sea Turtle Partnership discovered the world’s largest nesting population of leatherback sea turtles in Gabon. During three nesting seasons, scientists conducted land and aerial surveys along Gabon’s 372-mile coast, estimating a population of up to 41,373 female turtles using the nesting beaches. This comprehensive study helped us identify the key sites for leatherback nesting, which will assist in the development of sound conservation plans and ensure a future for the species. The study revealed that around 79 percent of leatherback nesting occurs within national parks and other protected areas. WCS is working with local agencies in Gabon to further protect these magnificent creatures from illegal fisheries, nest poaching, pollution, and habitat disturbance.

WCS Projects

Oil and Gas Exploration in the Gulf of Guinea

As oil and gas companies expand their reach into the world’s oceans, probing the depths for untapped stores of energy, many marine creatures could be under threat. WCS’s Ocean Giants Program is working off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in west-central Africa to identify and mitigate the potential impacts of the industry’s activities to marine mammals and their habitats.

From the Newsroom

Madagascar Gets 'Roadmap' To Conserving Marine LifeFebruary 27, 2012

A study by WCS and partners presents a novel approach for establishing new large-scale protected areas in Madagascar’s waters.

Safer Seas for Sea TurtlesMay 12, 2011

Olive ridley sea turtles nest on the beaches Gabon but spend most of their lives in waters off the Republic of Congo. To protect them, WCS recommends the first international marine park off Africa’s western coast.

Scientists Reveal Epic Journeys of Leatherback TurtlesJanuary 5, 2011

The ocean-spanning journeys of the gigantic leatherback turtles in the South Atlantic have been tracked for the first time, thanks to groundbreaking research.

An Ocean of WondersDecember 14, 2010

Come 2015, Coney Island beachgoers will come ashore to connect with sharks, skates, rays and other fish. The New York Aquarium’s newest exhibit will bring people to the sea, and the sea life to the people.

Turning the Tide for the New York SeasAugust 29, 2010

WCS launches the New York Seascape Initiative to conserve the Atlantic's marine life and habitats from Montauk, Long Island to Cape May, New Jersey.

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