Leatherback Sea Turtles
Last Updated: Aug 25, 2011
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest of all marine turtles. These gigantic reptiles can reach up to six feet in length and weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds. Their name derives from the leathery skin which covers their bodies and forms their shells. This thick, rubbery skin is black in color and unlike the hard, bony carapaces of other turtles. Leatherback sea turtles have an average lifespan of 70-80 years in the wild.
Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
Status in the Wild: Endangered
Locally known as baulas, leatherbacks nest on both the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts in Costa Rica. Every year between October and March, female turtles return to the protected beaches of Playa Grande, just north of Tamarindo. The beach is part of Las Baulas Marine Park, which offers guided evening turtle tours during nesting season. Further down the Nicoya Peninsula, leatherbacks nest at Playa Caletas and within the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge.
On the country’s Caribbean Coast, leatherbacks frequent the shores near Puerto Viejo, in the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge and further north in Parismina and Tortuguero. Despite huge conservation efforts by various organizations, the leatherback population is in decline, mostly due to predation by humans, overfishing and loss of critical nesting beaches.
After mating offshore, the female leatherback usually returns to her original birth beach to lay her eggs. Interestingly, leatherbacks have been observed nesting in areas different than their “home” beaches. At night the female slowly crawls onto shore to dig her nest. She carefully excavates the soft sand with her flippers and lays anywhere from 100-150 eggs. A single female will commonly lay four to six clutches of eggs each nesting season.
Sea turtles lay thousands of eggs as a natural defense against predation. Very few turtle hatchlings survive into adulthood, as they are a favorite prey of crabs, birds, small mammals, fish and even humans. The first few days of a turtle hatchling’s life are treacherous, as it runs the gauntlet to the sea, only to be greeted with more ocean-dwelling predators.
Status in the Wild:
For the past three decades, the leatherback turtle population has been in decline. This amazing creature is considered an endangered species, at risk of extinction in certain parts of the world. The leatherback sea turtle is protected under the Endangered Species Act, and numerous conservation organizations strive to preserve important nesting beaches.
Ecotourism in Costa Rica has brought attention to the sea turtles’ plight and helped fund continuing efforts to monitor and protect the leatherback sea turtle.