- Scientific name: Dermochelys coriacea
- Biggest species of turtle
- Only species of turtle without a hard shell, they just have tough skin on their back
- The population as a whole is considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), however the western pacific subpopulation is considered to be critically endangered
Leatherback turtles are found all over the world in tropical and temperate waters. They are highly migratory and cross both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but they travel long distances to return to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs. It is not unusual for some leatherback turtles to travel around 6,000 kilometers just to lay their eggs. Pacific leatherbacks migrate from nesting beaches in the Coral Triangle all the way to the California coast to feed on the abundant jellyfish every summer and fall.
They are generally found in the open ocean and can be found in all Coral Triangle countries in Southeast Asia which are Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines or CT3.
Why they are important
Without leatherback turtles, jellyfish populations would increase and cause harm to the ecosystem because the jellfyfish compete with fish for plankton. They also harm/kill fish (especially those cultured in cages) with their poisonous stingers and clog fishing nets. Places such as the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico and the waters off Japan are already experiencing jellyfish blooms. Jellyfish is actually the main diet for leatherback turtles as their mouths are not designed to eat anything hard.
Turtles can provide coastal communities with an ecotourism opportunity through turtle conservation. Turtle Island Park in Malaysia has an ecotourism program which includes watching turtle lay eggs, watching the transfer of turtle eggs into secure hatcheries, and watching the hatchlings being released into the sea. The catch is that these turtles cannot be held for too long because newly hatched turtles are in a frenzied mode which allows them to swim for 2-3 days nonstop. This initial burst of energy helps baby turtles reach open waters which are safer for them.
On average leatherback turtles weigh up to 500 kilograms and measure around 1.8 meters but the largest leatherback turtle that was ever recorded was 900 kilograms and was 3 meters long from the head to the tip of the tail. Female leatherback turtles reach sexual maturity between the ages of 6-10 years old and from then on will mate every 2 – 3 years.
Leatherback turtles are the biggest species of turtles and are well known for lacking a hard shell on their back and instead have tough rubbery, “leatherlike” skin protecting them.
When these turtles nest, they can lay up to 100 eggs. Some eggs will not hatch because some eggs do not have yolks, only a small percentage of these potential hatchlings can survive until adulthood.
The western pacific subpopulation is considered to be critically endangered. Pollution, especially plastic bags, is a major threat to turtles because of their resemblance to the turtle’s favorite food, jelly fish. The ingestion of plastic can kill turtles by blocking their digestive system or piercing their gut wall, and can cause problems through the release of toxic chemicals into the animals’ tissues.
Like other sea turtles, leatherbacks are dependent on beaches for nesting. Uncontrolled coastal development, and sea level rise have either destroyed or disturbed nesting areas around the world. If their old nesting area is no longer available due to physical barriers or the presence of too many people, turtles will look for another beach which may not be suitable for nesting. Once their eggs are laid, their eggs are also under threat from poachers and feral animals that dig up their eggs and use them for food.
Some ecotourism organizations may hold the turtle eggs for too long in order to wait for more tourists. If the turtles are not released within 2 to 3 days of their hatching, they will lose their initial energy and the chance for them to reach open water diminishes.
The leatherback’s slow reproductive cycle makes it especially vulnerable to the effects of overfishing and pollution. They are often caught as by-catch in fishing nets (e.g. longlines meant for other species). Turtles can hold their breath for a maximum of two hours but they often drown or are dying by the time fishermen bring the net up. Their eggs are also harvested by poachers to be sold and eventually eaten.
What you can do
Conduct research about turtle hatchery programs before deciding to support them. Find reviews or news about whether or not the program is truly effective in raising awareness for sea turtles. This can include maintaining distance from the turtle during nesting and making sure they release the turtle hatchlings on time.
Make sure your trash goes in the trash can; pollution on the land can still have a change to reach the ocean. When trash reaches the ocean they will create a toxic environment and the plastic bags might be mistaken for jellyfish by the turtles.
Report and share any sale of sea turtle meat or hunting to the authorities and social media. They are legally protected in all CT3 countries.
Laws protecting Leatherback Turtles in CT3
- Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
- Fisheries Act of 1985
- State of Sabah prohibits exploitation of marine turtles and their eggs
Collecting turtle eggs and releasing the baby hatchlings to the sea is a popular ecotourist attraction. How can we make sure that the event does not harm the baby turtle’s chance at survival?
Answer on the Facebook post by CTI-Southeast Asia for a chance to win in our Minigraphics contest!
Article by Panji Brotoisworo. Art by Dana Rose Salonoy.