Meet the Largest Sea Turtle in the World – They Need our Help!
June 15th 2023
Intrigued by its unusual appearance and subdued temperament, the leatherback sea turtle manages to fascinate marine biologists and nature enthusiasts alike. This special reptile clearly stands out in many ways, as it’s the largest species of turtle in the world, growing up to around 2 metres in size and is covered in dark, thick, rubber-like skin that covers its entire body. Even its bony carapace is hidden well underneath this softer layer.
Leatherbacks are also excellent divers and can reach depths of up to 4,000 feet, with a unique ability that allows them to regulate their own body temperature at extreme depths, making them one of the rare examples in the reptile world that are partially endothermic. When it comes to their diet, these turtles are not fussy eaters, and while their diet mostly consists of jellyfish, they also happily consume fish, seaweed, crabs, shrimp, fish and other invertebrates. Their exact lifespan is still unknown, but evidence suggests that they can live up to 50 years, perhaps even longer.
A rapid decline
When it comes to spotting these gentle giants, wildlife watchers could assume they are in luck, as leatherback turtles are highly migratory animals that can be found in a large variety of regions in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, ranging from tropical to subarctic temperatures. However, their numbers have been steadily declining by over 40% since the last century and they have been listed as an endangered species since 1970. The exact number of the remaining leatherback population is unknown, as counting individual animals of a species that predominantly lives its life at sea is an incredibly difficult feat, though estimates of nesting females lie in the 30.000 – 40.0000s globally.
The species is under threat due to a large list of factors:
All sea turtle species suffer under exploitation by poachers. From being hunted for their meat, eggs and shell, to being captured and sold in the illegal exotic pet trade, poaching is an ongoing issue which threatens the survival of a myriad of sea turtle species, including the leatherback sea turtle.
The production of plastic and its waste has been proven detrimental to marine life. Not only can it cause serious injury to a large number of species due to entanglement, but it also poses a risk to leatherback turtles who confuse clear plastic with their main food source: jellyfish. This can lead to indigestion, infections and starvation in severe cases. Other forms of pollution, such as offshore oil spills and other marine debris also form another health risk, as well as being contributing factors to navigation loss in sea animals.
Leatherbacks are dependent on unattended, natural beaches for undisturbed and successful nesting. The rise of sea levels, alongside rapid coastal development, the use of motor vehicles and a myriad of other uncontrolled activities have had a direct negative impact on sea turtle nesting grounds globally, as their natural habitats are destroyed.
All sorts of water vehicles can hit leatherback turtles when they are near the surface, which might cause severe injury or loss of life. These types of incidents are especially common near harbours and heavily populated beaches and pose a threat to most sea turtle populations. Vessel strikes are also linked to many leatherback strandings in the US.
How can we help?
Even though leatherback sea turtles are experiencing many threats caused by humans, not all hope is lost. Many countries are introducing protective laws and regulations in order to preserve sea turtle populations. Panama has recently passed legislation that makes sea turtles legally defendable in court and guaranteesthem the right to live and have free passage in a healthy environment.
Costa Rica has also introduced national legislation to protect sea turtles, as their vast shorelines and tropical latitude attract an abundance of females that utilise these perfect conditions for laying their eggs.
Here, you would be able to directly make an impact through hands-on research towards the reduction of illegal egg poaching activities with nightly patrols and contribute to ocean conservation by organising educational events for the public. Poaching in the area has already been reduced by 60% through incredible volunteer efforts. If you’re interested in making a difference, please feel free to also check out our other volunteer opportunities that focus on the protection of vulnerable marine species.