• Marine Conservation

Leatherback sea turtles – the soft shell giants

Article by Zaytoen Domingo

Zaytoen Domingo

Posted: September 25, 2020

We’ve spoken about the smaller sea turtles that make their way to Jalova’s beaches but what about the ocean giant: the Leatherback sea turtle.

Anatomy and Lifestyle

At a length of 1.5m on average and weighing anywhere between 300kg to a tonne, it’s an impressive feat that these gentle giants make their way onto our shores each year to nest.

 While they don’t arrive in as high numbers as their Green cousins, with nests twice as big their presence is known as they track through the sand.

These turtles live their lives in more temperate waters, as they chase their main source of prey – jellyfish – through the cooler areas where they live. Leatherbacks also need to dive deep to catch their prey, meaning that the hard shell found on most other turtles would not suit their lifestyle. If Leatherbacks had a hard shell, the pressure from the deep waters they explore would crack their shell, so these giants have evolved with a softer, more flexible shell instead that can adapt to the changing pressures of deep water diving. 

Leatherback Nest

Their oesophagus is also adapted to a diet of jellyfish and is covered in hundreds of long spines all the way along it. This is because Leatherbacks swallow vast amounts of seawater in order to catch their prey. The spines allow them to expel the seawater from their system without their prey escaping as well, as the jellyfish get stuck on the spines when the sea water is released. Leatherbacks can eat their entire weight in jellyfish in a single day!

Despite their large size, Leatherbacks are actually the fastest to mature out of all the sea turtle species, only taking on average 10-12 years to reach sexual maturity. This is a lot faster than the other members of the sea turtle family who can take up to 30 years to reach this point.

Threats

Unfortunately for the Leatherbacks who nest at Tortuguero, the hatching and emergent success is low and the number of adults arriving to nest here is decreasing. However this doesn’t mean that the Caribbean Leatherback population is doing poorly. Other beaches in Panama and further down the Costa Rican coast have good numbers of Leatherback nests every year, so we can hope that our Leatherbacks are simply nesting more frequently elsewhere.

Leatherbacks, like all sea turtles, have their fair share of threats to their species. They are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Leatherbacks are most impacted by overfishing, net entanglement and boat strikes. Identifying and protecting areas that overlap with their migration routes will be key in helping to protect this species.

Luckily for us, the Caribbean subpopulation of Leatherbacks is doing relatively well, unlike their Pacfic counterparts who are currently classified as critically endangered. We cannot be more lucky here at Jalova to be able to contribute to the protection of these beautiful animals and every volunteer who walks through our gates during Leatherback season can know that they have made a difference to the protection of Leatherback sea turtles.

 

Article by Zaytoen Domingo

By Zaytoen Domingo

Zaytoen Domingo is a content writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in the Masters program in English at the University of the Western Cape. After graduating with an Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing, Zaytoen completed a skills-development program for writers and became an alum of the GVI Writing Academy.
what’s up next?
How business internships can give your career a competitive edge

Travelling overseas for an internship can equip you with valuable skills and work experience. Find out how business internships can give your career an edge.

You might also like these articles

What to expect when you join a teen volunteer program in the Canary Islan
Read the article
Marine Conservation
Three ways to earn your PADI Divemaster with GVI
Read the article
Marine Conservation
8 reasons to take an adult gap year
Read the article
Wildlife Conservation
Endangered sea turtles: how you can help to protect them
Read the article
Wildlife Conservation
Boost your resume with volunteer project management experience
Read the article
Volunteer and Adventure
Marine conservation in Mahe: what you’ll see and do in Seychelles
Read the article
Volunteer and Adventure
Why do we celebrate International Whale Shark Day?
Read the article
Marine Conservation
5 top scuba-diving and marine conservation programs (in the world’s best locations)
Read the article
Volunteer and Adventure
What to expect when you join a teen volunteer program in the Canary Islands
Read the article
Marine Conservation
What to expect when you join a teen volunteer program in the Canary Islan
Read the article
Marine Conservation
Three ways to earn your PADI Divemaster with GVI
Read the article
Marine Conservation
8 reasons to take an adult gap year
Read the article
Wildlife Conservation
Endangered sea turtles: how you can help to protect them
Read the article
Wildlife Conservation